Catherine de' Medici and the Scarlet Nuptials

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: When we left Catherine d'Medici in our previous podcast, she was a grieving widow. Her husband had just been killed in a jousting accident.

Sarah Dowdey: A terrible jousting accident, which I'm going to take the opportunity to relive one more time. He receives a lance in the eye, through the brain, and it takes him ten agonizing days to die. That's where we left off, and it's where we're going to pick up again.

Katie Lambert: I can see why you'd want to relive that, Sarah. She's left as regent for her sickly, weak-minded 15-year-old son, Francis the Second, who ended up married to Mary, Queen of Scots, which connects our Medici series to our Tudor steward's series.

Sarah Dowdey: That's the key. That's why this is a super series, which we've been so excited about! Catherine replaces her cheery personal symbol of a rainbow with that of a broken lance. She starts wearing exclusively black mourning attire, usually with a white ruff to set it all off.

Katie Lambert: For the rest of her life.

Sarah Dowdey: For the rest of her life. She gets to work. She effectively gets to rule France through three successive sons who are kings until she dies just shy of 70 years old.

Katie Lambert: But don't think there wasn't any trouble because there definitely was. The first son, Francis, didn't live very long at all. He died at 16, and he was succeeded by his ten-year-old brother who became Charles the Ninth. Catherine took this opportunity to seize full control of the regency using her very excellent scheming skills to remain in control of her kid amid these jostling factions in France.

Sarah Dowdey: She promotes him to majority at age 13, which is a year earlier than normal, but she wanted a real king of France because these factions were so contentious at this time. She takes them on a grand progress of the country, and it's a big deal. It's 28 months of traveling, moving between chateaus and tents, and taking barges and horses, and having all these elaborate festivals and banquets. Catherine is kind of an elaborate lady anyway. We learned in Leonie Frieda's book, Catherine D'Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, that she keeps bears in her retinue. You know how much Katie and I love bears.

Katie Lambert: A woman after our own heart.

Sarah Dowdey: These are kind of sad bears though. They have pierced noses, and they're chained to their leader, but they follow her around. I mean, how crazy is that?

Katie Lambert: She's also got a monkey, a parrot, and an entire household of dwarves who wear brocades, and fur, and have their own footmen and tutors. They all hang out with her constantly.

Sarah Dowdey: The point of this tour is not just to show off and show off how magnificent the crown is but to have the king meet and mingle with his people, and to keep the nobles entertained, keep them away from their country houses where they could - I don't know - cook up plans against the monarch, and just try to bring the country back together. She's hoping that everyone will ultimately rally around the king and rally together for France. This is something the country really needs at that time.

Katie Lambert: Right, because when Henri the Second died, he'd had the personal loyalty of all of their nobles, and once he was gone, the country is split again by feuding noble factions. Each of them wants control of this young king.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. They're loyal to the crown still, but they don't have that personal loyalty that they had to Charles and Francis before him to their father. So the principle nobles we're going to keep an eye on here are the Guise family. They are the ultra Catholics. Then there's the Bourbon family who are princes of the blood, which makes them the second family in France after the royal family itself. The Bourbons are Protestant, so just remember those two sides throughout this whole thing.

Katie Lambert: The issues between these two groups of nobles are also representative of religious issues in the country as a whole, so we're going to give you a little background on that to make it easier to understand.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. The Reformation, of course, got its start in 1517, two years before Catherine was even born, when Luther posted his 95 Theses. Then the zealous Protestant, John Calvin, is largely responsible for spreading the new religion in France. Just to get a scale of how quickly things happen here, by the 1550s, we have the first French Reformed churches, so this takes off really fast.

Katie Lambert: Less than 40 years for the whole thing. Catherine's husband, Henri the Second, who as we learned in the previous podcast was obsessed with his foreign wars, was a little bit too distracted to deal adequately with these religious fractures. He also underestimated them and their power. Then right after he made his foreign peace, he died with a lance in his eye, so that cut that short anyway.

Sarah Dowdey: Definitely. So we're left with these weak child kings and Catherine trying to patch everything up, patch up these feuding nobles, and a country split by religious differences. She's trying to protect her children's throne. She's trying to defend her own religion. She's a Catholic, of course, and deal with the factions. She can't please everyone. Nobody can juggle all of that.

Katie Lambert: Contrary to Catherine's later reputation as this crazed ultra Catholic whose intent on spilling Protestant blood, we'd like to do a little myth busting here, because she really strived for moderation whenever she could. She granted freedom of conscious and limited access to worship, which was a big, big deal. It's basically separating sedition from heresy. No one is happy still. The Catholics think she's capitulating, or maybe she'll even become a Protestant, horror of horrors. The Huguenots think it's still not enough.

Sarah Dowdey: It's weird though because this peace she tries to establish, the freedom of conscious and the limited access to worship, is what we end up with decades later after nine civil wars of religion. You end up with the same thing. It's crazy.

Katie Lambert: But that's not to say that her reputation for Florentine tactics, by which we mean murdering people and an interest in the occult wasn't deserved. Even though she was a devout Catholic, she relied heavily on Medici astrologer's magic and her own dream visions, another podcast theme. She had consultations with Nostradamus, but her main astrologists were the Florentine Ruggieri brothers who were magicians, necromancers, and men known for being very skilled in the black arts.

Sarah Dowdey: Just this weird magic mirror story about Catherine supposedly shortly after her husband died, she consults one of the Ruggieri brothers, and wants to have him foretell her sons' futures. In this mirror he pulls out, she sees her son's faces circling by. Ruggieri tells her that each circle they make will stand for how many years they'll rule the kingdom. She sees Francis go by once, her second son - Charles the Ninth - goes by 14 times, and then her third son, who is later Henri the Third, goes by 15 times. The final face she sees is Henri, Prince of Navarre, so it's really spooky and kind of a bad omen for Catherine.

Katie Lambert: She also had a guy in her life, Rene, who mixed up potions for her and supposedly poisoned gloves and poisoned rouge. Although it's likely that Catherine had people taken out - had her own little hit list - she probably didn't poison any fellow queens with poison gloves, but this is the kind of stuff that earns her her nickname, the Black Queen, and the massacre we're about to discuss.

Sarah Dowdey: That's a really big part of it. So we're going to set the stage for the massacre. While there are eventually nine wars of religion in France, at the time of the massacre - which is in 1572 - we've only had three so far. The wars have polished off the main Bourbon Protestant leaders, leaving two young princes as figure heads, and that's the Prince de Conde and Henry of Navarre, who we've already mentioned. Catherine has just arranged a peace-making marriage. Think the Yorks and the Lancasters, sort of like that, between Henry of Navarre and her daughter, Margaret, who's known as Margo. This marriage is going to unite the Valois family, the royal family, with the Bourbons, so that's uniting the senior and junior branches of the royal line. It's also going to unite the Catholics and the Protestants, because of course, Margo is a Catholic, and Henry of Navarre is a Protestant, so it's this great symbol of peace and goodwill. Thousands of people are going to come into Paris, nobles, regular people of both religions, to see the nuptials.

Katie Lambert: We have another important player in this setup. Since the Bourbon Huguenot leaders are dead, we have a guy named Admiral Gaspard the Second Coligny at the head of our movement. He had just returned to court about a year earlier and had begun currying favor with the king. His uncle had been a great trusted advisor to Henri the Second.

Sa rah Dowdey: The last king.

Katie Lambert: Yes. So Gaspard's idea is that maybe he can take on a similar role with Charles the Ninth, who as a young man is starting to get ready to take on more responsibility, take over some of it from his mom, and upstage his younger brother's glamorous military reputation.

Sarah Dowdey: So Gaspard has a plan, and he's hoping that it will bring him personally closer to the king, but he's also hoping that it'll give the Huguenots more recognition, more rights, more respect in France. The plan is to take French Catholics and French Huguenots, and together fight the Spanish in the Netherlands. The wedding ceremonies that are going on in Paris offer the perfect opportunity to discuss this plan with Charles and to try to get his approval.

Katie Lambert: But unfortunately for him, Coligny is very unpopular with the other members of the court. The very Catholic Guise family doesn't want war with Spain, and they hate Coligny because they consider him responsible for a murder in their family, the murder of Francoise de Guise ten years earlier. Catherine doesn't want war with Spain either. She thinks it could be disastrous, and she doesn't like Coligny's influence on her son.

Sarah Dowdey: This isn't just a religious issue. It's a mixture of personal vendettas and political problems, but going into this, we have two things happening: this big marriage between Margo and Henry, and the arrival of Coligny to attend the wedding and discuss the plans for the war against Spain.

Katie Lambert: So Catherine had long banned the Guises from enacting their revenge on Coligny for this murder. He may not even have been involved, by the way.

Sarah Dowdey: His name got roped into it. He probably didn't have much to do with it.

Katie Lambert: But then she lifts this ban, so he's basically back on a possible hit list, and approves the plan to assassinate him the day after the wedding ceremony's end.

Sarah Dowdey: We have a brief interlude here of the happy, peace-making wedding on August 18th, 1572. Margo and Henry marry outside of Notre Dame, and then she has a mass inside with her brother by proxy, because, of course, Henry, as a Protestant, cannot take part in a mass, and she wears an ermine-trimmed crown and a coat with a 30-foot train. We thought we'd throw in a few fashion details before things get really bloody here.

Katie Lambert: We like fashion details.

Sarah Dowdey: The festivities go on for days, kind of like the wedding we talked about earlier of Henri the Second and Catherine, just grand festivities, days and days of them.

Katie Lambert: Coligny himself isn't a big partier, so he's not really taking part in a lot of this celebration. He doesn't even really want to be there, in fact. His wife just had a baby, but he's hanging around so he can talk to the king about this Spanish expedition he'd like to get going, and he's becoming increasingly angry because Charles keeps putting him off and putting him off. Eventually, he warns him that they might soon be discussing civil war rather than foreign war if he doesn't get his meeting.

Sarah Dowdey: He also hears a plot might be hashing. Word is going to spread in these times. It doesn't bother him too much. He's going to stick around in Paris because he really wants to talk to Charles. So Friday, August 22nd, the celebrations end, and Coligny is out on a walk when the Guise's assassin strikes, and it's a shot from a window above the street. But right at that moment, Coligny bends down to adjust his shoe, so the shot misses him. It just strikes his arm, breaks it, and almost shoots off his finger, but he's not killed.

Katie Lambert: There's a lesson there, maybe, to always tie your shoe. I'm not sure. The Huguenots, of course, are enraged by this incident. Charles, who didn't know about it, promises that he'll find the parties involved, not realizing, of course, that his mother is behind it. Remarkably, Coligny stays in town instead of leaving, which I would have done, because he trusts Charles and trusts that he'll figure this out and set things right.

Sarah Dowdey: He believes him.

Katie Lambert: And fleeing would've been a huge insult to the king once he asked him to stay.

Sarah Dowdey: B y this point, things are starting to get kind of scary in Paris. The Huguenots are obviously furious that their leader has had this assassination attempt, and the Catholic Parisians are starting to get kind of angry too. I think they're tired of the Huguenots being around. This party has gone on too long by this point.

Katie Lambert: But Catherine's involvement in this failed assassination attempt cannot be found out, so she meets with nobles secretly to determine what to do next. Their decision is to kill all of the Huguenot nobles and captains who are still in Paris, which makes you wonder how they came to such a radical decision.

Sarah Dowdey: This is where things get a little bit dicey historically. Supposedly the royalists, Catherine and her nobles, had heard that the Huguenots were about to attack them. In order to avoid a coup, they decide, "We'll attack first." Later historians have said it's probably unlikely there was a major Protestant coup in the works at this time, although I watched an interesting video from historian Barbara Diefendorf at Boston University. She said it didn't really matter if the Protestants were actually going to stage a coup or not. Just the fact that Catherine and the other nobles thought it might happen was enough to warrant their strike - in their eyes at least. Think about it. You have all the powerful Huguenots in your own capital. Some of them are staying in your own palace, the Louvre. In a few days, they're all going to go home, back to their own palaces, maybe raise their own armies if they're planning a coup. It's the time to strike.

Katie Lambert: This is reminiscent of the Pazzi conspiracy.

Sarah Dowdey: Very reminiscent.

Katie Lambert: Okay, so they've made their decision, but they need the king's approval to go through with it. They break to him that actually they were behind the plot the whole time, and convince him that the Huguenots are about to pull this coup. He's basically bullied into giving his assent to execute a select list of people to kill.

Sarah Dowdey: He supposedly says, "Kill them all. Kill them all." Or maybe one of the Guises says that later as a direct quote of the king. We should emphasize that his assent is to kill the people on the list.

Katie Lambert: Just the people on their list.

Sarah Dowdey: It's not consent to the massacre that ends up happening.

Katie Lambert: The killings are planned for the early morning on Saint Bartholomew's Day on August 25th, and they're to be carried out by the king's royal bodyguards and Guise troops. At the same time, militiamen would be guarding the city's gates, and barges would block the Seine, so they're shutting off the city. The signal would be the 3:00 a.m. bell of the Palais de Justice. But the massacre starts a minute earlier when a bell rings out from a different church, and the first one to be killed is Coligny.

Sarah Dowdey: One of the first major leaders. He's very disdainful of his Guise guard assassin. He says, "I should at least be killed by a gentleman and not by this boor." Then he's run through with this sword, thrown out the window alive, and later beheaded. At the Louvre, there's all out slaughter going on. Henry of Navarre had woken up early -couldn't sleep. He decides to play a little game of tennis with his friends while he waits for Charles to wake up. On the way to the tennis courts, he and his friends are stopped by the king's men and separated. His companions are probably all taken away and killed immediately, but Navarre is locked up with his cousin, the Prince of Conde, for safety. These two are going to be spared. They're not going to be killed in this massacre of Protestants.

Katie Lambert: The Huguenots staying in the palace are dragged from their beds and have their throats slit. Some try to hide. Some try to run in the courtyard, but they're shot down by archers or pushed toward the line of Swiss guards. A sad note about Catherine's daughter, Margo, she is not, of course, the wife of a Huguenot, and she is in the middle of all of it.

Sarah Dowdey: Her sister had tried to warn her something was going on, didn't give her details of the plot, but had begged her mother to let Margo stay with them for the night. Catherine wouldn't allow it because she figured if her daughter didn't return to the Huguenot apartments, the Protestants might realize something was up. So Margo is in the middle of all this. She's actually in bed when one of her husband's men comes running in covered in blood and clings to her for dear life, being pursued by an assassin right behind it. The guy actually spares his life, and Margo personally petitions for a couple more of her husband's men. By 5:00 a.m., nearly all of the major French Protestants have been killed. The list has been killed by 5:00 a.m.

Katie Lambert: But the killing doesn't stop with the list. The rest of the populace gets involved. Lots of F rench Protestants have brought their families into town for the wedding, and they can't escape. Their homes are raided, their children are killed, and their bodies are thrown in the river. Personal issues that had absolutely nothing to do with religion were also settled in the chaos because if everyone's getting killed, who's going to know if you kill your creditor, or your enemy, or your wife?

Sarah Dowdey: It's a good time to take care of things. Nobody will notice. So Charles, obviously, was not intending for this level of bloodshed to happen, and he asks the people of Paris to please stop. They don't. It goes on for three days. Then it spreads to the provinces where it goes on until October. Katie and I were talking about what sort of message would that be? A guy rides out and says, "They're killing everyone in Paris."

Katie Lambert: "You should do that where you are." We're not sure how that works. The final tally is a bit up in the air. A Catholic apologist puts it at only 2,000. A Huguenot puts it at 70,000, but it's likely that there were at least 3,000 killed in Paris alone.

Sarah Dowdey: A few senior Huguenots do manage to escape. A few people had decided they might want to move their quarters across the river just in case trouble broke out between all the Catholics and all the Huguenots that were in Paris at once. A few of them ended up being able to escape. They were the seeds for new rebellion.

Katie Lambert: So the aftermath is that the Valois cannot get their story straight about what happened. Charles is telling contradictory tales. To the Protestants he says it was a popular uprising organized by the Guise.

Sarah Dowdey: So just a personal vendetta, y'all.

Katie Lambert: Then to the Catholics he says it was something he specifically ordered to prevent a conspiracy against the crown.

Sarah Dowdey: Of course, some Catholics, like Philip the Second in Spain, and the pope in Rome see it initially as, "Great! France has finally started a religious war." They're really happy. Philip even does a little jig, supposedly, which seems very unlike him. But they realize pretty quickly that no, it wasn't a religious war. It was politically motivated, and they stopped being so congratulatory.

Katie Lambert: Many Protestants had been sticking to the line that they were loyal to the line, thinking that he just had bad advisors, that it wasn't him, but now they decide they can't be loyal to the man who accepts responsibility for the massacre, understandably. The Huguenots throw off Calvin's views toward royal allegiance, which makes rebellion justifiable now.

Sarah Dowdey: So we have this pamphlet battle that begins too. This is probably most of the engravings you've seen, maybe Catherine standing there in black over piles of dead babies. This is from this time period. Charles is depicted as a maniacal king who laughed when he watched his people killed from his window, or maybe he's this emotionally disturbed man who is manipulated by his foreign mother, who's the black queen. She's not just foreign. She's Italian, which makes it doubly bad.

Katie Lambert: Ultimately, we just have these caricatures of these people instead of who they really were. Catherine de Medici has retained this reputation throughout much of history. Charles was haunted by the massacre, actually, and chronically ill. He died soon afterward. His brother became Henry the Third.

Sarah Dowdey: Catherine, always involved in her children's lives, continues to promote her son's throne. This is her favorite son, too, by the way. Mainly, her role for him, since he is a full-grown man, is to rein him in from his kind of dangerous inclinations sometimes. She dies in 1589. Eight months later, he's murdered by a deranged friar. He dies without children, so the crown goes to a junior branch of the family.

Katie Lambert: The Bourbons, and his cousin, Henry of Navarre, Henry the Fourth. He was the groom at the pre-massacre wedding festivities, who's married to Margo Valois. But Margo and Henry, who were never interested in each other in the first place, to be honest, ultimately annul their marriage, which allows Henry to make a new match. With this new wife, he goes on to found the Bourbon line of kings that ends nearly 200 years later with Louis the Sixteenth and the French revolution.

Sarah Dowdey: Who is his wife?

Katie Lambert: Marie de Medici, of course.

Sarah Dowdey: So we're so pleased with this little bit of his torical symmetry, and it wraps up our series on the Medici that started with the murder at the Duomo, but it also sets up another series that we could do someday, so Bourbon kings anybody?

Katie Lambert: Let us know what you think. You can follow us on Twitter at MissedinHistory. We also have a Facebook fan page, and you can give us your suggestions there.

Sarah Dowdey: One more little note on Catherine, though. For all of her splendor, she liked to keep her personal quarters very personal. She decorated them with all these family portraits, her Medici ancestors, the Valois family, her kids, her grandkids, her nieces and nephews. Think of it kind of like a grandmother's cluttered table of little photographs. She also likes games, and she keeps lots of them on hand, mini billiards, and chess, and a huge library of books that is devoted to game strategy. So we think she probably would've liked a couple of articles here at How Stuff Works.

Katie Lambert: How Chess Works, or perhaps even How Yahtzee Works, which you can find if you search on our home page at

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the home page.