Catherine de Médicis

"Madame la Serpente"

In 1575 a heavily slanted piece of propaganda called the "Marvellous discourse on the life, actions and misconduct of Catherine de Médicis, queen mother" disparaged France's acting regent as "a woman, a foreigner, and hated by everyone." The first two charges were undeniably true, and she had double-crossed enough people to make the third nearly true as well.

Catherine became queen of France by family connections and chance. A member of the ruling Médicis family of Florence, she was betrothed at age 12 to the prince who would later become France's King Henri II. France sought the match not because Catherine had money or beauty (she was described as being small and thin, having indelicate features and bulging eyes, a Médicis trait), but because of her distant relation to Pope Clement VII.

She married in 1533, at age 14, then failed to bear children for the next 10 years. The entire court wished Henri to divorce her, but he chose instead to take a mistress, Diane of Poitiers. Upset by the affair but powerless to do anything about it, Catherine turned to astrologers and magicians in a frantic quest to bear a child. In 1544 she finally delivered a future king, Francis. She eventually bore seven other children, two of whom would also rule France in turn. Still, Henri rejected her.

When she could not win Henri's love, Catherine befriended Marguerite of Navarre, Henri's aunt. Marguerite was a great friend of John Calvin and supported the Protestants with money and position. According to Protestant writers, Marguerite persuaded Catherine to begin reading her Bible. An archbishop was so horrified that he confiscated the Bible, likening Catherine's behavior to eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge.

Catherine's true religious views are unknown. Raised a Catholic, at times she seemed to sympathize with the Huguenots, but it is unclear whether she favored their doctrine or simply wished to keep peace in her kingdom. Her political aspirations certainly outweighed her piety. A Catholic official, Nuncio Frangipani, once wrote, "This queen no more believes in God than does any member of her suite."

Pretence or not, her sympathy for the Huguenots abruptly ceased while her son Charles IX was king. During his reign, the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny became good friends with Charles and gained influence over him. Fearing for her position, Catherine conspired against the Huguenots with Henri, duke of Guise, the Catholic leader. After convincing a reluctant Charles to go along with her plans, she arranged to have the French Protestants—including her erstwhile friend Coligny—massacred while they were in Paris to attend her daughter Marguerite's wedding.

In the long view, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre backfired, because instead of eradicating the Huguenot faction, it plunged France into a series of bloody conflicts that would destroy the Valois-Médicis line. Catherine repeatedly switched confessional loyalties and attempted to forge ties with both Protestant and Catholic countries, but no one trusted her (the Spanish called her "Madame la Serpente"). Both sides reviled her, producing massive quantities of libelous propaganda. Catherine amused herself by reading the articles and correcting them.

At age 70, Catherine died an embittered woman. Supposedly her last words were, "Blood! Blood! There is a river of blood! … The devils are after me! They are dragging me down to hell!"

Emily Alger is a freelance writer and contributing editor for's Christian Books section.

Gaspard de Coligny

A friend betrayed

Those who knew Gaspard de Coligny said he was a simple man who frequently chewed on toothpicks. Born into the powerful Montmorency family in 1519, he entered the military and distinguished himself in battle against the Protestants, earning the title of admiral in 1552. King Henri II (Catherine's husband) appreciated Coligny, and the two became close friends and hunting companions.

Coligny converted to Protestantism in the 1550s through a study of the Bible and the works of John Calvin and Martin Luther, but he didn't publicly declare his support for the Reformation until after Henri II died, in a jousting accident, in 1559. As a tireless crusader for religious freedom in France, Coligny became a hero and a leader of the Huguenots.

After the king's death, Catherine's young sons began to assume the throne in succession, and she became the real power in the land. In the early 1560s, as de facto ruler of France, she enthusiastically supported Coligny's plans for Huguenot journeys to the New World to found Protestant colonies there. She also initially supported Coligny's attempts to broker a peace between Catholics and Protestants.

But fearing that Coligny's friendship with her son King Charles IX (1560-1574) was undermining her influence, and because Coligny was agitating for France to go to war with Spain over Holland, she betrayed Coligny. On August 22, 1572, Coligny, head of the Huguenot armies, barely survived a bullet fired by an assassin, who was almost certainly hired by Catherine and members of the Guise family.

After the attempt on Coligny's life, Huguenot leaders recommended that he leave Paris immediately, but he refused. He trusted the young king, who frequently referred to Coligny as "my father." Little did he know that Catherine was at that hour successful in convincing her son that Coligny was plotting to overthrow the government. Charles is reported to have said to her, "Well, then kill them all, that no man be left to reproach me." Thus the fate of the Huguenots was sealed.

On the night of August 24, 1572, the palace bell rang, which was Catherine's signal for the slaughter of Huguenots to begin. Coligny was one of the first to die.

A group of assassins broke into his home, and Besme, a German mercenary, stabbed Coligny through the stomach with a sword, leaving him for dead. The leader of the assassins, Henri of Guise, called out, "Besme! is it done?" In response, Coligny was thrown out the window, where he died at Guise's feet.

Matt Donnelly is a freelance writer living in Minnesota.

Henri of Navarre

Strong leader, flexible faith

As the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre raged outside the Louvre, young Henri of Navarre stood before the enraged King Charles IX, who shouted, "La mort ou la Messe"—death or conversion to Catholicism. Henri chose the latter.

Henri might have been expected to show more resolve. His mother, Jeanne d'Albrêt, had passionately supported the Protestant cause. Several victims of the massacre had been Henri's wedding guests days earlier. And conversion was only a partial solution—Henri saved his life, but he would spend the next three years as a prisoner of royal counselors.

Henri did not seem to mind. A few weeks after his conversion, he played tennis with the Duke of Guise, a driving force behind the massacre.

Henri's marriage to the king's sister Marguerite—a symbolic union of Protestantism and Catholicism—had been intended to foster peace during the devastating Wars of Religion. Instead, it became the unhappy context of the infamous massacre and a public demonstration of Henri's seemingly pliable convictions.

"Those who follow their conscience are of my religion," Henri said. Of course, he also said, "Religion is not changed as easily as a shirt."

When Henri finally decided to escape his royal captivity, his skills as a hunter proved useful. One night he disappeared into a thick forest on horseback. He eventually made it all the way to his small southern border state of Navarre, where he quickly converted back to Protestantism.

He left behind a loveless arranged marriage, strained by scandal as well as different temperaments and faiths. Both he and Marguerite were involved in numerous infidelities, though they had little passion for each other and never produced an heir. Shortly after the union, "We never slept nor spoke with each other any more," Marguerite reported. The marriage was later annulled.

In normal circumstances, Henri never would have become king. His cousin Charles IX had two healthy brothers, Henri and Hercule (called François), whose claim was stronger than his. Yet upon seeing Henri as a boy, Catherine's court prophet Nostradamus had inexplicably predicted that he would reign over all of France.

In 1584 François died. Henri III, who had become king when Charles died 10 years earlier, declared Henri of Navarre the heir presumptive. French Catholics, 90 percent of the country's population, reacted with outrage and disbelief. How could the Church tolerate a Protestant king, when the job would require him to act as the national protector of Catholicism and to eradicate heresy? Pope Sixtus V excommunicated the heretic, and after the assassination of Henri III in 1589, the Catholic League supported rivals to the throne.

The wars that followed demonstrated that Henri of Navarre, now Henri IV, was made of sterner stuff than his effeminate predecessor, who at his coronation had shrieked that the crown was hurting his head. Henri IV not only commanded armies, but he fought alongside them in hundreds of battles and sieges, leading charges and suffering numerous wounds along the way.

Henri's military prowess, though, took him only so far. Out of money as his army laid siege to Paris in 1593, he faced a crisis. While he might eventually capture the city, he doubted that any military victory would enable him to capture the hearts of the overwhelmingly Catholic French. Only conversion would bring him the crown.

Some of Henri's advisers argued that abjuring Protestantism would betray his people and all they had suffered. But the staunchly Protestant Duke of Sully spoke for many war-weary Huguenots when he reportedly counseled, "Paris is well worth a Mass."

Although Henri's final conversion disappointed some and brought accusations of hypocrisy from others, it ended the Wars of Religion and made national restoration possible. Moderate elements of society applauded, and one periodical declared, "There is no peace so unjust that it is not worth more than the most just war."

In spite of his confessional wavering, Henri took his beliefs seriously. He astonished his Catholic instructors with his theological knowledge, then unnerved them by tearfully asserting that they must make certain of his salvation, for he was trusting them with his immortal soul. However, he disparaged some Catholic doctrines as "rubbish which he was quite sure that the majority of them did not believe."

Politically, Henri proved to be an astute leader. In one of his first acts as king, he declared general amnesty. He let go of personal grudges, too. He took his worst enemy, the Duke of Mayenne, on such a brisk walk that the rotund nobleman was soon huffing and sweating. Henri finally halted and embraced him, saying, "This is all the vengence you will ever suffer from me!"

Out of concern for the peasantry, he forbade nobles from riding over crops when hunting. He spoke of his desire that there be a chicken in every pot. He rebuked troops who pillaged the poor by declaring, "To rob my people is to rob me."

Henri was considerably less keen in his personal life, especially around women. For example, he adored hunting but rarely bathed afterward. On her wedding night, his second wife, Marie de Médicis, drenched herself in perfume, but she was still overpowered by his odor. Concurrent mistress Henriette D'Entragues told him he smelled like carrion.

Henri introduced these two women upon Marie's arrival in Paris, saying, "She has been my mistress—now she is going to be your most biddable and obedient servant." Henriette had to be physically forced to curtsy to Marie, whom she called Henri's "fat Florentine banker" (he had married Marie in exchange for the cancellation of a large debt France owed her family). Marie bore him seven children, beginning with Louis XIII, an unquestioning Catholic who later promoted Cardinal Richelieu.

One act stands out in this mixed legacy. In 1598 Henri signed the Edict of Nantes, which gave Protestants legal recognition and ended the Wars of Religion. The price of this peace was allowing the Huguenots to exist as a separate state within France's borders.

Though hailed today as a landmark act of toleration, the compromise was seen by some Catholics as a betrayal of Henri's coronation promise to defend the faith. In 1610 he, like Henri III before him, was assassinated by a fanatical Catholic.

Reagan White is a freelance writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Cardinal Richelieu

Servant of the state

A brother's abrupt decision to become a monk rather than a bishop put the benefice that supported Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu's family in jeopardy. Although Richelieu was then a promising student at France's leading military academy, his mother informed him that he must leave and begin theological studies.

Richelieu accepted without protest, cloistered himself with the texts of his new discipline, and never afterward expressed any hint of resentment. His ambitions could be as readily assuaged in the politically powerful Catholic Church of the seventeenth century as in the military.

Richelieu quickly won support from both Protestants and Catholics in his bishopric through tax reduction. He told Huguenots wary after long years of strife, "I know that there are some of this company who are not one with us in Faith, but I hope they shall be one with us in love."

While pragmatic and tolerant, he was also immensely self-confident; during this time he wrote an essay titled "Who Will Be My Equal?" Hubris was made prophecy by his rapid rise to power, which saw him appointed both cardinal and Louis XIII's chief minister before his fortieth birthday.

His guiding principle for governing was raison d'état (reason of state), which gave the state's welfare priority over other ethical concerns. "A Christian," he wrote, "cannot too soon forgive an injury, but a ruler cannot too soon punish it when it is a crime against the state."

Because of his conviction that enemies of his policies—and his person—were among the enemies of France, both were punished ruthlessly. "Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find an excuse in them to hang him," he is reliably quoted in the play Mirame.

Richelieu believed France's greatest challenge was its fragmentation. Accordingly, the problem with the Huguenots was not their faith, but their status as "a state within a state." His campaign against the symbolic Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle was carried out with steely determination, finally wringing surrender from the siege's survivors after 13 months. Yet after his victory, Richelieu stunned Huguenots and outraged Catholics with his leniency. Soon Huguenot industry was reintegrated in the economy of a more unified France.

Richelieu next challenged the autonomy of the nobility by ordering the demolition of their fortifications. To help drive home the new principle of centralized authority, he also banned dueling and promptly executed the first nobleman who defied him. "It is a question of breaking the neck of duels or of your Majesty's edicts," he told the king.

The cardinal's campaign to solidify France sometimes took surprising turns. At one point he paid the Protestant king of Sweden to turn the tide against the Catholic Hapsburgs during the Thirty Years War—a counter-intuitive strategy that succeeded in undermining his country's rivals. He has since been both hailed as a founder of modern France and blamed for the French Revolution.

Shortly after Richelieu's death, in 1642, Pope Urban VIII evaluated his career by saying, "If there is a God, he will have much to answer for. If not, he has done very well."

—Reagan White