Hotel de Guise, Paris, January 1576
“Henry, for God’s sake—slow down! I cannot keep up. My legs are too short!” I watched as my husband’s wide shoulders trailed down the hallway, his enraged voice booming from the thick stone walls. I scurried behind him, doing my best to keep pace with him. When he was in one of his rages, there was no reasoning with him. Yet that had never stopped me before.
His hulking legs continued to put him further away from me, taking one step to match my two. I was far from the shortest woman at court, but Henri, the Duc de Guise was a giant of a man. No man in France could measure up to his hight, with his blonde locks towering over every man at court. Unfortunately for me, he had a personality to match his oversized body.
“Henry!” I screeched at the top of my lungs, a taking my turn in the game that we had perfected in the almost two decades of our marriage. Neither of us would fit a priest’s view of a Godly or virtuous man or woman, but then neither of us had made an effort to pretend that we were anything other than what we were. This arrangement made it easy to be honest with one another. Of course, our determination to be ourselves frequently meant that were were in screaming matches with one another, but on this one occasion, I was not the person who had enraged my giant of a husband.
The person in question was his August Majesty, King Henri III of France, Duc d’ Anjou and only surviving son of Catherine de Medici. Last summer, my husband and his Catholic League had successfully compelled the King to agree to place him in charge of the armies of France. My husband immediately appointed his younger brother, the Duc de Mayenne an army to attack the Protestants who swarmed across France. When the terms were set in the heat of summer, we breathed a sigh of relief that the King had finally come to his senses and decided to protect France from invasion and the real threat of heresy from the Protestant Queen of England and my heretic cousin, the King of Navarre.
Today, however, my husband received word from his spies in Normandy that the King had spend the last three months in secret negotiations behind his back. All of the work that Mayenne did on the icy battlefield was for nothing. Worse still, the King casually broke his promise to the Guise brothers to accept their advice in leading the armies of France.
I continued to try to catch up with him, but he stormed out of the front door of our house and onto the courtyard below, where a saddled horse always waited for him. Watching him so, I seethed. I knew where he was going. He was going to see that strumpet.
Do not misunderstand me—I am no moralist who chafes at the idea of a philandering husband. I have had my own share of lovers myself. I am too lively to be satisfied with a single man, even if that man is my husband. Even if he is arguably the most handsome man at court. I have never begrudged Henry for his mistresses as he has rarely objected to my lovers. I object to the idea that he is going to take out his frustration with another woman while blatantly ignoring me. I have spent too many years in service to the Guise family to be shut out today.
I storm back to my own rooms, passing one of the many retainers who have sworn loyalty to the Guise and to the Catholic League. Our cavernous home, the Hotel de Guise purchased by the previous duke and my mother in law has more than enough room to house the people necessary to compose a rebellion. Every person in this house has been party to the seditious acts against the King and his favorites. As one of my husband’s most ardent allies, I do not take well to being shut out of his counsel.
Once at my desk, I pull out pen and paper and begin composing letters to allies across France. My husband might not want to acknowledge my usefulness to the League, but there were numerous people who would. After he was through with his sport in bed, we would have words.
“Every time that I think Henri Valois cannot sink any further, he manages to surprise me!” My sister in law, the widowed Duchess de Montpensier sat her wine on the table before her, careful not to spill on the intricate lace cloth before her. Her wording was deliberate; while the rest of us still continued to refer to the man on the throne of France as the King, she insisted on insulting him by referring to him as “Henri Valois” as if he were an ordinary citizen. If Montpensier had her way, he would soon become an ordinary citizen. Amongst the noblewomen who ran the female contingent of the League, she was the most ardent. There was no moderation in her tone or in her actions. If she ran the League, Catherine of Lorraine would gladly march upon the Louvre and burn the king as he slept in his bed.
“You would think that for his own survival he would occasionally take advice from someone other than that useless fop Epernon.” As soon as the man’s name was out of my mouth, I ground my teeth. Epernon enjoyed the place that rightfully belonged to my husband and the members of the Guise and Lorraine families. As the highest ranking nobles of France, their place was at the King’s hand. Yet Henri III had decided raise up virtual peasants to the lucrative posts that kept the nobles from going into virtual bankruptcy. Far too many of our retainers and allies had been forced to sell land and assets to make up for the loss of offices that were rightfully theirs. It shames me to admit that we Guises were in the same position as the Great Offices of France were now closed to us.
“If he had a bit of common sense,” she absentmindedly picked at the ruffs at her wrists, “he would listen more to your brother in law.” I groaned inwardly at her accusation. My brother in law was the man who had risen with the King’s ascension to the throne, and a man who had long served the Valois kings of France. Louis Gonzaga, who took over the title of Duc de Nevers by marrying my older sister, was the only voice of reason left in the King’s Privy Chamber. Louis’ presence gave us hope that eventually he would get through to the King. Yet judging by the King’s past decisions, he would ignore Louis as soon as Epernon whispered into his royal ear.
I shook my head, “I never know what is in Louis’ mind. I know that part of him agrees passionately with the League. He is as loyal a Catholic as we are. Yet he is determined to remain as neutral as he can. It’s as if he’s terrified to stand up and make a decision.”
She shrugged, “Then speak to Henriette. She is your sister, after all.” I could no more control my sister than my husband could control his, I thought as I avoided Montpensier’s gaze. As controlling as the woman who sat before me was, Henriette was just as nebulous. I never knew her mind, either. Sometimes I felt as if my sister was a cold, calculating fish.
“My relationship with my sister is complicated, and the King himself made it so.” Henriette once was the most senior woman of the Queen’s household, as well placed in the King’s court as her husband. In a characteristically stupid move, however, the King decided one evening to trap my sister in a fake affair and “expose” her before the court. She fled from the court in humiliation, and has barely made any effort to return. If I wish to see her, I usually have to drop by the Hotel de Nevers and make a sisterly visit. Even though it is selfish, I am very put out by her self-imposed exile from court. Without her, I have few real friends to rely upon, save my radical sister in law. Montpensier is quite a handful, angrily railing against the King at every opportunity. I count myself as a radical, but she gets on my nerves on a regular basis.
“Catherine, you mentioned the new printing blocks—would you show them to me?”
She clapped her hands. “Of course! I was afraid you would never ask. Come!” Standing, she pulled me up from my chair and dragged me outside as I struggled to put on my heavy cape. With an almost gleeful bounce to her step, she led me to the stables of her Hotel de Something, and at an empty stall, she glanced both ways and opened the padlock.
“Here they are.” The carvers finished just last week. They were well paid for their silence.” Throwing back a horse blanket, she showed the wooden printing blocks to me. One of them depicted the King of France as a priest, shorn of his hair and shorn of his crown. “The price of betrayal of Gaul,” the inscription screamed in bold lettering. Another featured a Protestant army, marching upon the familiar walls of Paris, with babies hanging aloft on pikes. I glanced at Montpensier, “Isn’t that a bit much?”
“Innocents suffer in war, and if the Protestants and their mercenaries from Germany and Switzerland are allowed to march across France, there is no telling what horrors the city will endure. It is best that we acknowledge the danger and do something before this image comes true!” Her eyes shone with the passion of a fanatic. In those brown depths I saw a touch of madness. Still, I knew that I had few friends and allies in Paris, and given how Henry had pushed me away a few days before, I could not afford to alienate his sister. Instead, I turned to look at another plate.
“This one doesn’t have an image,” I frowned, trying to make sense of it. She made a reverse nod, acknowledging my confusion.
“This is blank so that we can create pamphlets from it. The lines are there to make the sentences straight. Here,” she rummaged around in the hay until she found a small sack, “are the individual letters that the printers will use to make the pamphlets. The beauty of this is that we can use any number of combinations of letters. We can make several different pamphlets and we can do it quickly.”
“And are you absolutely certain that you want them taken from your house? At least here, you can have complete control over the printing process.” Something told me that the wooden blocks in front of me were a portent of trouble, but I did not know just how troublesome they would later prove to be. For the moment, my main objection was the added activity that they would bring to my own home.
She shrugged, “Henry promised. As I am a widow, it would not do for me to be seen instigating rebellion against the King’s policies.” Was she serious? There was no woman in Paris better known for instigating and fermenting rebellion against the King. Why would she bother to stop now? Had she finally realized that she had gone to far? Did she know that the blocks were too dangerous? Yes, there was a chance that her sex would cause the King to have mercy on her if the blocks were found at her home, but it was not a given. She faced just as much danger as the rest of us.
Still, I was determined to demonstrate my usefulness to my husband. Having control of the words printed by the League across the city of Paris did carry with it an irresistible amount of power. Despite my earlier sense of foreboding, I turned to her.
“I’ll see that P