Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de’ Medici—a woman immortalized by history’s legacy of mystery, intrigues, assassinations, poisonings, and vicious deeds—ruled France as Queen Mother from 1559 to 1589.  Catherine de Medici has been labeled as “the Italian Duchess without a Duchy”, “the Maggot from Italy’s Tomb”, and most famously “the Black Queen.”  History’s paintbrush may have been too harsh on the commoner-turned-queen from Italy.  The truth behind Catherine’s infamous legacy, the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre, remains a topic of debate for modern historians.  Did Catherine authorize the massacre for imperialistic or nationalistic measures or was she an innocent bystander?   The majority of evidence seems to say that the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre resulted because of the premeditation and preparation of Europe’s most powerful queen, Catherine de Medici—her reason, personal gain.

Before passing judgment on Catherine, historians contemplate two points: what role did Catherine play in the massacre and what were her motives?  First of all, Catherine played a relatively large role in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve as the ruling Queen Mother.  Her role is demonstrated through her dealings with the religious conflict prior to St. Bartholomew’s Eve, her part in Coligny’s death, her decisions on the night of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, and her position after the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day.

In the beginning, Catherine maintained a neutral position between the Catholics and Huguenots.  She even proposed to ease the Huguenot persecution if the Huguenots would promise in return to “not hold assemblies and [live] secretly and without scandal” (Frieda, 130).  Several meetings were held which tried to resolve the religious conflict, but nothing was ever accomplished to the satisfaction of all parties.  After the death of the Duke of Guise, Catherine became the head of the Catholic regime while Coligny was the head of the Huguenots (Frieda, 170).  Author Frieda defends Catherine’s intentions by stressing the Edict of Amboise which gave a limited freedom to the Huguenots, but in the end Frieda must agree with Neale that Catherine turned staunchly against the Protestants when the life of the king was threatened.  Because of the imperial threat, Catherine ordered the deaths of Huguenot leaders and started a third religious war in France (Frieda, 211, 216; Neale, 71).

While no one claims that Catherine was ignorant of the plot for Coligny’s death, historians do argue about the part she played in his assassination.  Neale argues that since Catherine was known for assassinations, her part in Coligny’s death should not be surprising; she even hinted about his assassination to a foreign ambassador who was visiting court (Neale, 73).  According to Frieda, the queen organized Coligny’s death because it was a necessity for the well-being of France, and she was prepared to maintain stability for her people at any cost (Frieda, 249).  Williamson disputes that Catherine killed Coligny because she was determined to save herself and her throne.  While Catherine did not care for bloodshed, she was not above using an assassination to remove a political enemy, and so she persuaded the king to sign Coligny’s death warrant (Williamson, 216).  The first attempt failed so the second try would be on a night which lives in infamy:  St. Bartholomew’s Eve.

The Black Queen chose the night of her daughter’s wedding to a Huguenot prince as the launching point for a wholesale attack on her religious enemies.  In the end, a few Huguenot princes were spared as well as Catherine’s daughter and her new son-in-law.  Neale points out that Margot’s wedding was the ideal time to slay the Huguenots because many of them came to Paris for the festivities (Neale, 77).  Neale also believes that Catherine did not realize that such a time would be as dangerous as it eventually became.  Authors Frieda and Williamson disagree as to whether Catherine wanted to kill all of the Huguenots or just a few leaders.  Regardless of her prior intent, when the queen presented her plan to the king, he agreed to the slaughter and cried, “Kill them all!” (Frieda, 266; Williamson, 218).  A list of Huguenots to be killed was drawn up, but when the days following that lethal night were over, thousands lay dead, both Huguenot and Catholic alike.  Catherine later reflected that “I have never before… been in a situation where I had so great a reason for feeling terrified and from which I have escaped with greater gratitude” (Williamson, 231).

Catherine’s position after the massacre of St. Bartholomew was unshakeable.  According to Frieda, the queen realized that she and the monarchy were the true victims.  The Huguenots eternally hated Catherine now and would continue to oppose her until her death.  In the Huguenot minds, “the royal marriage had been a devious trap set by the Machiavellian Queen Mother, perhaps with the backing of Spain, to capture and exterminate their brothers and sisters” (Frieda, 275).  Catherine justified the killings as a necessity for the survival of the monarchy.  Her personal journal records her answer to public outcry, “[Coligny] could be punished for his rebellion in no other way than that which we were constrained to take both against him personally and against those who were his partisans” (Williamson, 232).  The queen apologized for some loss of life, but no sign of true repentance has been found.

After viewing Catherine’s role in the events surrounding St. Bartholomew’s Day, the only question that still must be answered lies within her motives; were her motives imperialistic or nationalistic?  Authors Frieda and Neale argue opposing sides.  Frieda, who favors Catherine, describes St. Bartholomew’s Day as “a surgical operation that went wrong rather than an act of premeditated genocide” (Frieda, xix).  Catherine’s dynamic feelings about her children, the royal dynasty, and France as a nation were the driving forces for her actions (Frieda, xx).  She tried to use Coligny’s death and the massacre to destroy both the Guise family and the Huguenots that threatened the royal line (Frieda, 254).  Although Frieda avidly supports Catherine in her book, even she must concede that Catherine kept her power when her sons claimed their majority (Frieda, 222).

Neale supports the idea that Catherine’s motives were purely personal and imperialistic in nature.  While Neale agrees that much of Catherine’s motivation comes from her maternal instinct, he declares that “once she had tasted political power her energy led her to guard and monopolize it with passion” (Neale, 41-42).  He also states that Catherine’s power began while Francis II lay on his death bed because the queen began to steal power for herself (Neale, 51).  The author opposes Frieda’s view by saying that the massacre could not have happened without a preconceived plan.  However, Neale does acquiesce a little by saying that if Coligny had been killed on the first attempt then the premeditated plan would probably not have been put in action and the massacre would not have occurred (Neale, 81).

History blames Catherine de Medici for the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve.  Authors Neale, Williamson, and even the reluctant Frieda give evidence to the belief that Catherine played a large role in the massacre and that her motives were purely personal.  The only person who could truly set the record straight is the Black Queen herself—and she never will.

– Hannah S. Bowers


Frieda, L. (2003). Catherine de Medici: renaissance queen of France. Great Britain: Weidenfield & Nicolson.

Neale, J. E. (1958). The age of Catherine de Medici. Great Britain: Barnes & Noble.

Williamson, H. R. (1973). Catherine de’ Medici. New York: The Viking Press.