A new Starz series, “The Serpent Queen,” dramatizes the life of the much-maligned 16th-century ruler
Associate Editor, History
When Francis II, the 16-year-old king of France, was on his deathbed in 1560, his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, realized she was about to lose her tenuous grasp on power. She’d enjoyed some political influence during Francis’ reign, but his heir, her younger son Charles, was just 10 years old, meaning a regent would need to be appointed to govern in his stead until he came of age. Catherine—a woman at a court dominated by ambitious men—was unlikely to be the first choice.
The queen mother came up with an ingenious plan to secure her position as the kingdom’s preeminent politician. Summoning members of two rival factions, the Guise family and the House of Bourbon, she accused Antoine de Bourbon, the leading candidate for the regent role, of treason—a crime for which his brother had recently been sentenced to death. Fearful of meeting the same fate, Antoine readily yielded the regency to Catherine. The Guises, who had condemned Antoine’s brother under legally dubious circumstances, agreed to the arrangement to avoid facing charges of their own. Catherine ordered the newly reconciled parties to seal the deal with an embrace.
“Pitting her rivals against each other, she had emerged seemingly above the fray,” writes historian Sarah Gristwood in Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe. “She had become an operator. It was a triumph of her personal diplomacy.”
Catherine’s calculated bid for control was emblematic of her approach to governing throughout her time as a de facto ruler of France. The Italian-born queen and mother of three kings—Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III—ruled on behalf of or alongside her sons, wielding varying amounts of power over three decades. Above all, says Una McIlvenna, a historian at the Australian National University and the author of Scandal and Reputation at the Court of Catherine de Medici, “She is a selfless, tireless negotiator for peace. … She is utterly dedicated to ensuring that her children’s rule is successful.”
Despite Catherine’s many achievements (among them, her role in the return of the English-held city of Calais to France and her patronage of the arts), she has long been vilified by scholars and the public alike. “The Serpent Queen,” a new Starz series starring Samantha Morton as its titular character, alternatively leans into and questions this portrayal of Catherine, ultimately asking viewers what they would have done differently in her place.
“There’s this show calling her the ‘serpent queen.’ That really says it all,” says historian Estelle Paranque, author of the forthcoming book Blood, Fire and Gold: The Story of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici. “A snake is someone that will stab you in the back, that will always be in the shadows trying to get you. And that could not be further from the truth when it comes to Catherine.”
Premiering on Starz on Sunday, September 11, the eight-episode series is based on historian Leonie Frieda’s 2003 biography, Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France. Showrunner Justin Haythe wrote the script.
Morton, as an older version of Catherine, narrates the show, telling a servant about her traumatic upbringing, early years in France as the wife of the future Henry II, and ascent to the throne following the death of Henry’s father, Francis I, in 1547. A key source of drama is the relationship between Catherine and Diane de Poitiers, Henry’s much-older mistress. Catherine’s struggle to conceive and ongoing conflicts between noblemen and religious factions—the Protestant Huguenots and the Catholics—also dominate the action.
When writing “The Serpent Queen,” Haythe aimed to complicate the long-held characterization of Catherine as a power-hungry, unscrupulous and murderous woman.
“I liked the idea of a villain from history who would address us and say, ‘Let me you tell why I did the things I did, and you’ll judge me differently,’” Haythe says to Town & Country. “You have to really wonder if this is an evil person with shards of good, or it’s a good person who’s capable of evil to survive.”
Morton echoes Haythe, telling Town & Country that “history writes women as ‘devil women,’ or as evil, for just being incredibly clever and astute.”
As Catherine tells her servant in the first episode of the series, “I used to be just like you. Someone else’s shoes upon my feet. Shivering myself to sleep at night. With nobody in the world to care about me.” This is far from an exaggeration: Born to a French noblewoman and a leader of the famed Medici banking family on April 13, 1519, Catherine was orphaned within a month of her birth. She spent her childhood living with various relatives but was taken hostage in 1527, when rebels ousted the Medici from power and forced her into a convent.
In October 1529, as pro-Medici troops besieged Florence, the cornered rebels turned their attention to 11-year-old Catherine. According to Frieda’s biography, they considered lowering her naked, in a basket, in front of the city walls, where she’d likely be killed by gunfire, or leaving her unprotected in a military brothel. When an escort arrived to remove Catherine from the convent, she feared the worst, cutting her hair and putting on a nun’s habit in hopes of discouraging her captors. “Let us now see what excommunicated wretch will dare to drag a spouse of Christ from her monastery,” she reportedly yelled out. Defying this warning, the rebels took the young girl on a “perilous journey” through “a starving and menacing crowd voicing threats and open hatred,” writes Frieda. She arrived at her next site of imprisonment unscathed, but the incident left an indelible mark.
The rebels surrendered on August 12, 1530, paving the way for a newly freed Catherine to join her uncle, Pope Clement VII, in Rome. There, the Medici pope began making plans for his niece’s future. He eventually settled on a match with Henry, Duke of Orléans, the second son of French king Francis I. Born less than a month apart, the young couple wed in October 1533. Unfortunately for Catherine, Clement died soon after, greatly reducing the strategic value of the marriage.
Catherine made the best of an oft-humiliating situation, graciously accepting the constant presence of her husband’s mistress, Diane. But she struggled to conceive for more than a decade, leaving the future of the Valois dynasty in question. (Francis’ eldest son and heir died unexpectedly in 1536, leaving his younger brother Henry next in line for the throne.) After consulting countless doctors, diviners and magicians, as well as trying a host of folk remedies, Catherine finally gave birth to her first child in January 1544; nine more followed over the next 12 years.
Catherine and Henry ascended to the French throne upon Francis’ death in March 1547. Though Catherine was now queen, she enjoyed limited influence, with the king instead relying on Diane and his male advisors. Inheriting a relatively stable kingdom, Henry prioritized the prosecution of French Protestants and war with one of France’s erstwhile enemies, Spain. He also arranged the marriage of his heir to Mary, Queen of Scots, securing an alliance between France and Scotland to the detriment of England, where Mary had long been proposed as a wife for Tudor king Edward VI.
A 1559 peace agreement between Henry and Philip II of Spain inadvertently led to the French king’s death at age 40. Competing in a celebratory joust at French court, Henry received a fatal injury when his younger opponent’s lance struck his helmet, leaving splinters in his eye and head. Despite doctors’ best efforts, the king died on July 10, after ten days in agony.
Henry’s death left 15-year-old Francis and 16-year-old Mary in charge of France—at least in theory. Though Francis was old enough to rule without a regent, he was inexperienced, sickly and willing to cede authority to Mary’s Catholic uncles, Francis, Duke of Guise, and Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine. As the Guises seized power in what was essentially a bloodless coup, Catherine presented herself as a grieving widow somewhat outside of the political arena. No longer beholden to her husband’s mistress, she banished Diane from court.
According to Frieda, the queen mother “knew that as the country gradually became engulfed in the crises left after Henry’s death”—religious upheaval, debt linked to the king’s relentless wars, factionalism—“the stringent measures required to deal with them would almost inevitably make the brothers deeply unpopular.” Though Catherine took a backseat to the Guises during Francis’ reign, she wielded more power than she had as queen, with the young king beginning all of his official acts with the words “this being the good pleasure of the Queen, my lady-mother, and I.”
Staunchly Catholic, the Guises continued Henry’s prosecution of French Protestants. These harsh policies—adopted against Catherine’s advice—sparked a March 1560 conspiracy that aimed to replace the Guise brothers with Louis, Prince of Condé, a leading Protestant of the House of Bourbon. The plot failed, and the Guises brutally punished the conspirators, sentencing Condé to death during a legally suspect trial.
Luckily for Condé, Francis died before the execution could be carried out, succumbing to an ear infection and related health issues on December 5, 1560. Catherine, who subsequently seized power by pitting the Bourbons and Guises against each other, agreed to Condé’s release as part of her restructuring of government.
The day after Francis’ death, Catherine called the Privy Council together to recognize her 10-year-old son as Charles IX. “Since it has pleased God to deprive me of my elder son, I do not mean to abandon myself to despair, but to submit to the Divine Will and to assist and serve the King, my second son, in the feeble measure of my experience,” she declared. “I have decided, therefore, to keep him beside me and to govern the state, as a devoted mother must do.”
As McIlvenna notes, Catherine realized the only way she could “assume the reins of power … was to present herself as the ultimate widow and mother, whose entire life was devoted to her sons and bringing up this next generation of French rulers.” For Catherine, adds Paranque, power was “all about safety for herself and for her family.”
From late 1560 to 1574, Catherine enjoyed preeminence as the queen mother, advising Charles until he was declared of age at 13 (a year younger than usual) and continuing to wield significant control over the kingdom’s affairs until Charles’ death in 1574 at age 23. Religious conflict dominated Charles’ reign, which saw the escalation of the French Wars of Religion, a series of eight civil wars that took place between 1562 and 1598. It’s from these conflicts that arguably the most pervasive myth about Catherine arose: the idea that she was singlehandedly or largely responsible for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572.
By the time Charles ascended to the throne, tensions between the Bourbon-led Huguenots and Guise-led Catholics had been brewing for decades. An initial war spanning 1562 and 1563 saw the deaths of prominent leaders on both sides: Antoine de Bourbon and Francis, Duke of Guise. An uneasy peace brokered by Catherine failed to last, and by 1567, the country was back at war.
A Catholic herself, Catherine viewed the never-ending conflict as a significant threat to the stability of the realm. She advocated religious tolerance toward the Huguenots and, above all, wanted to secure the supremacy and longevity of the Valois dynasty. “We need to remember that for rulers, it’s always easier to rule if you …. are at peace,” says Paranque.
As part of her peacemaking efforts, Catherine negotiated with Jeanne d’Albret, the Protestant queen of Navarre (an independent kingdom bordering France) and widow of Antoine de Bourbon, to arrange a marriage between their children, Margaret of Valois and Henry of Navarre. The two women had a tense relationship, with Jeanne writing that Catherine “only mocks me, and reports the contrary of what I have said to her, in order that my friends will blame me.”
Jeanne eventually agreed to the match, only to die two months before the wedding, in June 1572. (Rumors that Catherine sent Jeanne a pair of poisoned gloves have proven persistent but unfounded, with scholars agreeing that the queen most likely died of tuberculosis.) The nuptials went ahead as scheduled on August 18, with deadly consequences.
To mark the union, thousands of Huguenots flocked to Paris, chief among them Gaspard de Coligny, who’d served as a lieutenant under Louis of Condé. The circumstances of what happened next are subject to much debate, but historians generally agree that the crisis began on August 22, when an assassin wounded but failed to kill Coligny. Fearful of Huguenot reprisals, the Catholic faction took preemptive action, murdering the injured Coligny and sparking a wave of violence that quickly spiraled out of control. Catholics targeted Huguenots (easily distinguished by their black and white clothing) in the streets, indiscriminately killing men, women and children. The bloodshed spread beyond Paris to the French provinces, continuing for days, if not weeks. Estimates of the death toll vary widely, from 2,000 to 70,000; contemporary historians place the number of deaths in Paris alone at about 3,000.
Though historians have no concrete evidence of Catherine’s involvement in the assassinations that triggered the massacre, the Medici queen has historically borne the lion’s share of the blame. Accusers argue that she planned the wedding as a way of luring Protestants to their deaths, conspiring with the Guises and other Catholics to plot the annihilation of their enemies. Even Frieda, who offers a more sympathetic depiction of Catherine than many previous historians, holds her partially responsible, suggesting she conspired to assassinate Coligny and, after the assassination attempt failed, agreed to the killing of “a select few [to] eliminate the heretics’ high command.”
Paranque and McIlvenna disagree with this assertion, pointing to Catherine’s lengthy history of striving for peace with the Huguenots. “The idea that she would organize a massacre of the people she’s been trying to negotiate a peace with for decades doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” McIlvenna says. Paranque points out that the queen mother offered refuge to Sir Francis Walsingham, the Protestant English ambassador to France, and “tried … to save as many Protestants as she could.”
Regardless of Catherine’s role (or lack thereof) in the massacre, her name is irrevocably linked with the bloodshed—a fact that contributed to her later vilification as the “serpent queen,” the “black queen” and the “maggot from Italy’s tomb.” Together with lurid—and easily debunked—tales of poison, black magic and the flying squadron (a group of attractive young women who Catherine purportedly employed to seduce noblemen and discover their secrets), the queen mother’s association with the deaths of thousands of innocents cemented her reputation as a villain.
In the mid-1570s, an anonymously authored pamphlet painted Catherine “as a woman of ruthless jealousy and ambition, a master dissimulator, an unnatural and corrupting mother, the murderess of multiple notables of the kingdom … and the principal or even the sole cause of the numerous wars of religion,” per the University of Virginia Library. By then, the queen mother was overseeing the kingdom’s affairs on behalf of her next eldest son, the newly crowned Henry III. According to Frieda, she dismissed the charges out of hand, jokingly telling her ladies it was a pity “the author had not previously applied to me for information, as by his own statement ‘it was impossible to fathom the depths of her Florentine deceit.’”
The pamphlet’s claims—echoed, to some degree, by later chroniclers and historians—stem in large part from Catherine’s status as both a woman and a foreigner. “There is no real respect for a female ruler” during the 16th century, says McIlvenna. “It’s written into law in France that women can’t be monarchs. So she’s always dealing with that tension, that her role as a female ruler is not being respected by the various noblemen who believe they should be the ones running the country.” Unlike her former daughter-in-law Mary, Queen of Scots, and other rulers of the era, Catherine had no royal blood. She “was not born to be queen,” says Paranque. “She was not born into power.”
Compounding the supposed problems posed by her gender were Catherine’s Italian origins. Though she was half French, this side of her family was often overlooked in favor of her Medici heritage. Anti-Italian sentiment was rife in 16th-century France, where Italian women were considered “naturally inclined to political scheming, sexual deviance and poisoning,” writes McIlvenna.
Historians have, in recent years, reassessed Catherine’s life through a more sympathetic lens. Paranque and McIlvenna are among these scholars. Both argue that the queen mother’s legacy is one of devotion to her family and striving for peace.
“She’s a woman who loses all her family when she’s young and then manages to create her own [new] family,” says Paranque. “You can’t remove Catherine de’ Medici from the mother she was, [because] every decision she made was based on what was best for her family.”
In the 1580s, Catherine, who’d found her influence waning in the later years of Henry III’s reign, watched as her only surviving son lost the love of his people. Henry’s tyrannical tendencies culminated in the 1588 murders of the Guise faction’s then-leaders. Catherine died a few days later, probably of pleurisy, at age 69. An observer wrote that “those close to her believed that her life had been shortened by displeasure over her son’s deed.” Henry was assassinated by a Dominican friar a few months later, ending the Valois dynasty’s hold on the French throne and enabling his distant cousin and brother-in-law, Henry of Navarre, to take the crown as Henry IV.
Spared during the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre after agreeing to convert to Catholicism, Henry reigned until 1610. Today, he’s remembered as one of France’s greatest rulers.
Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history.