After watching in 2014 the first season of the TV historical fantasy romance series “Reign” on CW channel, I was hooked. I didn’t miss the second and third season. It was this TV series that spurred my interest in the historical character Catherine de Medici.
This engaging novel is the third one I’ve read so far by the author C. W. Gortner, and he didn’t disappoint. With his mesmerizing prose I was quickly transported to tumultuous 16th century France, rife with bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants and treacherous court machinations in the royal families’ wrangling for power.
As a foreign teenage bride of undistinguished lineage arriving from Italy to marry a sophisticated French prince Henri II, whom she had never met before, Catherine de Medici was doomed to have rough beginnings in her adopted country. Soon she discovered that her new husband’s beloved mistress was the true mistress of Henri’s household and his only true love. When her childless state started to threaten her marital bond, she resorted to using the black arts to help with her fertility.
After becoming the Dauphine, Catherine was able to sire a number of children consecutively, three of whom would become King of France in tandem. During her second son’s reign (Charles IX), she got mired in a noxious scheme to kill several Protestant (or Huguenot) leaders, one of whom had once been her lover and who she believed had betrayed her. The scheme eventually got out of control and led to what is historically known as the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, during which several thousands of Huguenots were murdered in Paris and beyond. The Catholic nobles led by the usurping Guise family put the whole blame on Catherine, who always showed tolerance towards the Huguenots and preferred peace to strife. From then on, she and her reigning sons would be caught up in the never-ending feud between the Catholics and the Huguenots, until the time when she had the Guises killed and subdued.
As much as some of her actions might be deemed ruthless, it would appear they were occasioned by untenable situations brought about by the opposing religious factions’ hostile stances. Were her choices motivated by her thirst for power, or just her zeal to protect her cubs and the royal lineage at all costs?
In the reported words of Henri IV: “What could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown – our own (the Bourbons) and the Guises? I’m surprised she didn’t do worse.”
Gortner has successfully spun a believable yarn about one of history’s most maligned royal women. I do believe a woman's maternal instincts would overrule everything else.