On a Frigid January day, Catherine de Medici, Queen Consort, Regent, and Queen Mother of France died at the age of sixty-nine. Historians believe that she most likely died of pleurisy. During the last months of her life, contemporary doctors diagnosed her with “dropsy” and “gout.”
Catherine’s last days were no doubt miserable for her. The previous December, her favorite child, Henry III of France, killed his rival, the Duc de Guise and his younger brother, the Cardinal de Guise, in an assassination plot that horrified Catherine.
Politically speaking, killing the elder Guise was disasterous for Henri III, and his mnother advised him against doing so several times. Too many influential Catholics had flocked to GUise’s banner, and Henri mistakenly thought killing him would force those Catholics to his side. The greater sin for Catholics across Europe, however, was the assasination of Louis de GUise, a Cardinal, a Prince of The Church. Horrified, the Pope decreed that it was no leagal for any Catholic to kill Henri for this sin. Knowing her son was facing a death sentence, one sanctioned by Rome, must have weighed heavily on Catherine’s mind as her life slipped away that December and Janurary.
Henri had called the Estates General to a Chrismas session at Blois, hoping to bring the Guise faction to heel, but when that plan failed, he started plotting their death. The brothers were killed on December 23-24th. Hearing that their champions were dead, the people of Paris rioted, and Henri realized that the capital was closed to him. Historians argue that during the tumolt, he failed to realize that his mother was on the verge of death.
Catherine’s last “political” acts happened no New Year’s Day when she went to visit the Cardinal de Bourbon, the last “Catholic” heir standing in the way of Henry of Navarre succeeding Henri III as King of France. During their meeting, Bourbon flew into a rage and accused Catherine of setting a trap for the Guise brothers and himself, upsetting the frail and ailing Catherine to the point that she had to be carried out in a chair. Catherine returned to her chamber, where she would remain until her death. Constantly attended by Henri III, Queen Louise and Catherine’s favorite grandchild, Christina of Lorraine, she dictated her final will on January 2nd. Coldly leaving her youngest daughter Margot out of her estate, Catherine instead left gifts to Henry II’s illegitimate daughter, Diane, and Catherine’s own illegitimate grandson, Charles de Valois, due d’Angouleme, son of Charles IX. and his mistress Marie Touchet. Louise received the Chateau de Chenonceau that Catherine had loved so much during her lifetime and fought Diane de Poiters over decades earlier. Margot would spend years contesting Catherine’s will, and the courts would later award her the amount given to Charles de Valois. Upon her death, Margot willed the remainder of the amount to her godson, Louis XIII.
As her life continued to fade, Catherine met with Henri, urging him to reconcile with Henry of Navarre, his likely heir to the throne, and to be merciful to the same Margot she had cut out of her own will. For years, she had remembered an astrologer’s warning to avoid St. Germain, which would have a considerable influence upon her final destiny. Believing this to refer to the Chateau de St. Germain, she avoided it as much as possible. Instead, he made her final confession to Julien de St.
Germain, abbe de Charlieu, confessor to the king. By January 4th, she was incapable of speech.
On January 5th, Catherine died in Henri’s arms unable to speak. The evening of the 5th, Henri carried out an autopsy before the body was wrapped in royal robes. The robes and clothing used were the same used for Anne of Brittany during her funeral and retrieved from the sacristy of St. Sauveur. This unusual arrangement was due to the fact that the city of Paris and St. Denis were closed to both Henri III and his mother, the Catholic League having driven them both from the city the preceding Spring. Unfortunately, the embalming was imperfect, and as a result the corpse was secretly stashed in a side aisle of a church in Blois. There it remained until 1610 when the second Medici queen of France, Marie de Medici ordered it moved to its rightful place at St. Denis.
Legends say that around her neck lay a talisman made of several metals that was supposed to give the wearer the power of divination. At her death, Henri took the medal from her body and ordered it to be destroyed.
In Paris, few mourned her death, believing that she was instrumental in the assassination of the Guise brothers. Parisians openly threatened to seize the body en route to St. Denis if Henri dared to send it to the city of burial beside the body of Henry II. Thanks to her successor Marie, however, she eventually made it there to rest beside her husband. Despite writing out her will, creditors descended upon her homes, seizing furniture and any items they could liquidate.
Henri III draped his chambers in black cloth, and his strength sapped took to his bed, as did Queen Louise. The only Valois left to hold court was Christina of Lorraine, who had married the new Duke of Tuscany (uncle of Marie de Medici) during Christmas. Christina also needed someone to help her make her way to Tuscany to join her new husband, and Henri called his illegitimate sister, Diane de France to his bedside to help him.
For more reading, see Martha Walker Freer, Henry III, King of France and Poland.