Catherine de’ Medici gets a very bad press, especially in English – partly because people have this weird thing about Italian women in positions of power going around poisoning people (Lucrezia Borgia falls foul of the same idea) and, more rationally, because of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Coming just two years after Pope Pius V effectively urged English Catholics to try to overthrow Elizabeth I, and coinciding with the escalation of the war in the Netherlands, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre ended up being the best piece of propaganda that the Protestant authorities could have had, and Catherine’s name is still associated more closely with that than with anything else. I appreciate that I’m being annoyingly Anglocentric here, but I am talking about books written in English!
I’ve actually always felt a bit sorry for Catherine. First she had to put up with her husband’s relationship with Diane de Poitiers – OK, it was the norm at the time for a king to have a mistress, but not for a king to be mixed up with someone who dominated him as much as Diane dominated Henri II – and then almost all her children died. And she lived in very difficult times. So I was glad to see that C W Gortner felt a bit sorry for Catherine as well, and tried to portray her sympathetically. We’ll probably never know to what extent she was involved in the events of 1572, but to lay them all at her door is unfair.
However, his portrayal of events was rather strange, to say the least. He never even mentioned Catherine’s son Henri, the future Henri III of France, being king of Poland-Lithuania. And he portrayed her youngest son, Hercule, as having been so severely affected by smallpox that he was severely physically and mentally disabled. He was certainly affected by smallpox, but I’ve never got the impression that it was that severe. I’m going to be Anglocentric again now, and say that I always think of him as the froggy who came a courting! Anyway, I didn’t find the portrayal of him very accurate.
I could have lived with that, but there were other things that were even more bizarre, in particular the idea that Catherine was having an affair with Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots! Where on earth did he make that up from? Catherine being mixed up with Nostradamus and other supposed prophets – yes, that’s true enough, although interpretations of it all vary. Margot having it off with the Duke of Guise – OK, we all know about that. Henri III being bisexual – well, we’ll never know for sure, but it’s something that there’ve always been rumours about … although CW Gortner, who seems to have a very over-active imagination, seemed to think that he had weird secret crushes on his enemies, which seems a rather strange idea. But Catherine and Coligny?! How on earth did he dream that up?!
Much better was his portrayal of Henri de Bourbon, the future Henri IV. I really like Henri IV. He’s your bit of rough turned brilliant politician and leader, and he’s the one with the sense to change his professed religion for the sake of peace. Going off down the Anglocentric path again, I always think that Charles II of England, his grandson, was very like him. If James II, James Edward or Bonnie Prince Charlie had had a grain of his common sense, British history might have been very different – but they didn’t, and it wasn’t, and (with apologies to the Scottish Highlands and most of Ireland) that was very probably for the best. Sorry, that’s totally beside the point! Back to this book.
And I’ve got very mixed feelings about this book. It’s an entertaining read, and it covers a very interesting period in history, but why do some novelists feel the need to distort events by dreaming up such totally off-the-planet things? I don’t think even Philippa Gregory would have come up with an affair between Catherine de’ Medici and Gaspard de Coligny! Very odd. Stick to what actually happened – it’s interesting enough as it is.