Catherine de Medici was born on April 13, 1519 in Florence, Italy, she died on January 5, 1589 in Blois, France. She was the daughter of the famous Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent. Her mother was Madeleine de la Tour d' Auvergne, whose mother was Catherine de Bourbon, which made her related to the royal house of France. She became an orphan at a young age, and at the age of 13, Francis I, king of France arranged a marriage between her and his second son, Henry II, eager to forge a friendship between him and her uncle Clement VII so he can thwart the plans of Emperor Charles V. She was also an instigator of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

Apart from being very political, Catherine was a patron of the arts, she was very interested in architecture and this was demonstrated when she ordered the building of a new wing to the Louvre Museum. She also initiated construction of the Tuileries gardens, and in building the château of Monceau. Her personal library contained numerous rare manuscripts, which was renowned in Renaissance France.

A good description of these times can be found in Alexandre Dumas' book, Queen Margot or La Reine Margot which centers around Margaret de Valois', Catherine de Medici's daughter.

In 1533 Catherine de Medici married the Duc d'Orléans, who became king of France in 1547 as Henry II. She was queen of France from 1547 to 1559. In the beginning though Catherine had little power during Henry II's reign, and that of her first son, Francis II. When Charles IX, her second son became king on Francis's death in 1560, she ruled as regent and the government was hers. She ruled until Charles IX reached maturity in 1563, but she continued to dominate him throughout his reign. Catherine was the mother of the last three Valois Kings of France.

Determined to keep absolute power in the royal family, she used most of her energy maintaining a balance between the Protestants known as the Huguenots led by the French military Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, and the Roman Catholics, led by the powerful House of Guise.

In 1560 she arranged a marriage between her daughter, Elizabeth de Valois to become the third wife of the powerful Roman Catholic king of Spain, Philip II. In 1562 when the religious civil wars began, Catherine being Roman Catholic supported the Catholics, but sometimes because of political situations she supported the Huguenots. Her skillful political manipulations also affected the personal affairs of her family. In 1572, she arranged another marriage for her other daughter Margaret de Valois to marry the Protestant king Henry de Navarre, who later became the king of France as Henry IV. Later in 1572, soon after her daughter's marriage, she found the Huguenot influence over her son Charles XI a threat. She plotted to assassinate the Protestant leader Coligny. His death led to the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre which caused the deaths of 50,000 other Protestants. One of the people leading the Massacre was the Duc de' Guise.

In 1574, the death of Charles XI by poison led to the accession to the throne of her third son, Duc d'Anjou, as Henry III, he was also recently made King of Poland by Catherine. Henry III was also Catherine's favorite son, but in his reign, her power declined. On June 10, 1584 Francis of Valois, Catherine's youngest son, died, and Henry III being without issue, was forced to make Henry de Bourbon also known as Henry de Navarre, a Protestant, later Henry IV, heir to the crown of France. Henry III tried to convince Navarre to convert to Catholicism but he would not and this would cause future problems. The Valois family was doomed to extinction.

Catherine de Medici always ambitious, laid claim to the crown of Portugal for a member of her family, and dreamed of giving the crown of France to her daughter's son, the Marquis de Pont a Mousson. But the decision rested between the Guises and the Bourbons. At the end of 1587, Henry III was no longer master of Paris, but the Duc de Guise was, and on the "Day of the Barricades" on May 12, 1588, Catherine saved Henry III's honour by going in person to negotiate with Guise who received her as a conqueror. By doing so she gained time for Henry III to flee secretly from Paris, and then she reconciled Henry III and Henry de Guise by the "Edict of Union" in July 1588.

Keeping the crown by a Valois for a longer time, Catherine was at Blois with her son, Henry III, for the meeting of the States General. Here she learned, on December 23, 1588, that Henry III had rid himself of Guise by assassination. Her surprise was tragic. "You have cut out, my son, but you must sew together", she exclaimed, and thirteen days later she died in despair and anxiety, because she had always placed the interests of her children and family first. It was soon ended, however, when, on August 1, 1589, the dagger of Jacques Clement killed Henry III.

Catholic Encyclopedia, and Microsoft Encarta