Sunday, September 23, 2007



This book is an interesting failure. It is well worth reading and contains many interesting passages, but Ms. Frieda fails in her stated aim of creating a more sympathetic understanding of Catherine de Medici and the difficulties under which she labored.

Catherine is widely seen as a talented, scheming and ruthless power-behind-the-throne figure, doing almost anything to promote and protect her children which included two Kings of France. Catherine's era overlaps that of a truly great queen, England's Elizabeth I, so her story includes figures such as Mary Queen of Scots and Philip II of Spain and includes the great waves of violence that crashed across Europe following the Reformation. You just can't come up with better historical material.

Ms. Frieda does a creditable job of telling her story, at times rising to gripping narrative as when she describes events around the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, an orgy of killing in which something on the order of ten to twenty thousand Huguenots were slaughtered, many having their throats cut in their beds.

Ms. Frieda's explanation of Catherine's role in the Massacre is that she only wanted to have a small group of leaders killed while conveniently gathered for the wedding of Henri of Navarre, a Protestant of Valois blood, and Catherine's daughter, Margot. Ms. Frieda's thesis is that what was to be a small "surgical operation" got completely out of hand with Paris mobs taking to killing anyone even suspected of being a Protestant, as though killing a group of guests at a royal wedding, had it gone no further, would have been just fine.

Ms. Frieda is not the first to put the thesis forward, but it fails utterly to soften our view of Catherine. There is little proof supporting Frieda's interpretation, but, in ordinary common law, if you commit a crime that generates a still bigger crime, you are not free of guilt. Beyond that, no one knew better than Catherine, after all her terrible experience with French Catholic-Protestant relations, what a seething place Catholic Paris was. To have Admiral Coligny, a much-admired Huguenot, and other high officials assassinated at that time in that place was criminally stupid, apart from all considerations of ethics and proper statecraft.

She wheedled her mentally-unbalanced son, Charles IX, into agreeing to the vicious plan, in part out of her sick jealousy over Coligny's friendship and influence with the King. When Charles, in one of his maniacal rages, finally roared his infamous "Kill them all" order, shouldn't the supposedly careful and subtle Catherine have understood how the words could be misinterpreted?

One can't avoid seeing Catherine as the classic over-protective, hot-house mother, willing to forgive her bloody awful darlings anything, willing to do almost anything for them. Such people always do a great deal of harm in ordinary life and even more when they are in high places. This sick trait of Catherine was compounded by the fact that there was raging madness in her Valois-de Medici brood. Charles IX, Henri III, and her daughter Margot, who married the future king, Henri of Navarre, were simply mad, unfit to rule even in ordinary times, but these were not ordinary times. There was Catherine working feverishly for their interests, effectively against the interests of France as a whole.

Other unsavory aspects of Catherine's character come through even in this book. Her horrible execution, many years later, of the Count de Montgomery, the man who accidentally killed her husband, Henri II, in a jousting entertainment, is just one. Henri, who had insisted on another joust, had publicly forgiven the man as he lay dying. Catherine waited for many years to take her bloody revenge. Frieda says this is one of the only examples of her taking vengeance, but that statement comes after having dismissed many convenient deaths, widely suspected at the time to have been poisonings.

Read this book and others - it contains an excellent bibliography - to decide for yourself how best to interpret Catherine's work. You will, in any event, be exposed to interesting times, and you will be glad you aren't living in them.