Italian-born French queen, regent and mother of three kings of France. She was a powerful influence in 16th century France, particularly during the Wars of Religion.
Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de Medici was born in Florence on 13 April 1519. Her father was Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino and ruler of Florence and her mother was Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, cousin of Francis I, King of France.
Catherine's mother died when she was two-weeks-old and her father soon afterwards. In 1533, at the age of 14, Catherine's uncle Pope Clement VII arranged her marriage to the duke of Orléans, second son of the king of France.
A year after their marriage, the duke began a long affair with Diane de Poitiers. Diane remained a dominant force in his life for the next 25 years, leaving Catherine sidelined. It was not until ten years after their marriage that Catherine gave birth to their first child. This greatly improved the queen’s position and the couple eventually had seven surviving children.
In 1536, the duke of Orléans became heir to the throne. Eleven years later he was crowned Henry II of France. Unfortunately it was to be a short reign as Henry died in a jousting accident in 1559, thrusting Catherine onto the political stage. Their eldest son Francis was proclaimed king, but died after less than a year. Then in 1560, their second son Charles was crowned, aged just ten years old. Catherine acted as regent for the young king and as a result dominated Charles throughout his reign.
She at first adopted a conciliatory policy towards the Huguenots (French Protestants), but in 1562 civil war broke out in France, marking the beginning of the series of conflicts which became known as the French Wars of Religion.
In 1572, in an effort to bring reconciliation, Catherine arranged the marriage of her daughter Marguerite to the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre. During the wedding celebrations in Paris, the Huguenot leader, Coligny, was murdered, as were hundreds of other Protestants who had gathered for the wedding. This became known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which Catherine was probably involved.
Charles IX died in 1574 and Catherine's favourite son Henry succeeded as Henry III of France. She continued to play a central role in government and made further fruitless attempts to reconcile the opposing sides in the ongoing civil war.
Catherine died on 5 January 1589 and was buried next to her husband in the church of St Denis in Paris.