Blood, Fire, and Gold: The Story of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici by Estelle Paranque

Catherine de’ Medici, the portly and pudgy-faced Queen Mother of France, once wrote to Elizabeth I of England that it would surely be easy for them to meet, since a journey of a mere three hours could bring them together. She was, or at least appeared to be, an enthusiastic advocate for that most rare of early modern royal events, a face-to-face conference between monarchs. And, in certain respects, the two women had much in common, from difficult childhoods and an unlikely rise to power to the absolute determination to hold on to what they had achieved.

They were, for the second half of the 16th century, the visible faces of female rule in Europe. Yet the fraught relationship between Elizabeth and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots is still viewed as one of the key aspects of her reign, its drama and tragic outcome emphasized in a recent exhibition at the British Library. Surely nothing else in Elizabeth’s 45 years of rule could come close to replacing the interest of this rivalry? The historian Estelle Paranque begs to differ. In a story written with verve and passion, she shows us the other woman in Elizabeth’s life.

Catherine de’ Medici (1519-89) was the little Italian duchess who married a future king of France and, through various accidents of fate, became a power broker, as the mother of three French kings between 1559 and 1589, in a country increasingly distracted by religious war. Although she was never a queen regnant like Elizabeth, Catherine certainly tried to act like one, and her attempts to forge a marriage between one of her sons and the English queen form the backbone of Paranque’s book.

The advantages for Catherine were obvious. Her husband, Henry II, who had died in a bizarre jousting accident celebrating the long-awaited peace treaty of 1559 between France and Spain, always viewed the English throne as within his reach. In 1558 their 14-year-old son Francis had married 15-year-old Mary Stuart, who, though crowned Queen of Scotland aged nine months, had been brought up at the French court since the age of six. (Francis ascended the French throne in 1559 but died of an ear condition after 17 months.)

The Queen of Scots had, in the eyes of the Catholic monarchs of Europe, a stronger claim to be queen of England than the heretic Elizabeth did. Her husband gone, Catherine tried, repeatedly, an approach that was less confrontational but would have had the same outcome. Marrying Elizabeth to one of her sons would bring England under French influence and greatly strengthen Catherine’s hand.

Paranque demonstrates, in spite of Catherine’s ambitions for her continuing role as the mother of France, the powerful forces at play against a woman who has become a byword for deviousness. The staunchly Catholic Guises, protectors of the claims of their niece, Mary, Queen of Scots, wielded murderous power in France; against them stood several princes of the blood, led by Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV) and the Prince of Condé, who took up arms in support of the Protestants in a series of vicious religious wars.

The Queen of Scots had, in the eyes of the Catholic monarchs of Europe, a stronger claim to be queen of England than the heretic Elizabeth did.

Small wonder that Catherine was keen to offer stability to a divided France, and to ensure the future of the Valois dynasty, by securing a marriage alliance between Elizabeth and one of her sons. Hence three of Catherine’s sons — Charles IX, Henry III and, lastly and perhaps most poignantly, Francis, Duke of Anjou (not to be confused with his late brother Francis II) — were proposed to Elizabeth as part of the game of marriage diplomacy.

It is easy to say, with hindsight, that this was never going to work — that Elizabeth didn’t have the slightest intention of marrying anyone, let alone a French Catholic prince who would gain control of her kingdom. Elizabeth was, as Paranque effectively shows in her entertaining accounts of the marriage proposals, perfectly willing to make all the right noises, to appreciate the diplomatic benefits to England of playing this game, even to seem encouraging and discouraging at the same time.

Catherine assured the English queen how much she wanted her as a daughter, hoping, perhaps, to suggest that she could be the mother Elizabeth had never known. Yet it was widely suspected that Catherine’s relationship with her first daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots, had ended on a sour note and, besides, there was, as Elizabeth pointed out, the question of a significant age gap between herself and Catherine’s sons.

Charles IX was 13 when his mother proposed him as a bridegroom. Elizabeth was over 30. As she considered this idea, distasteful to 21st-century sensibilities, did Elizabeth hear disturbing echoes of her first sexual awakening, as a 13-year-old in the “affair” with Thomas Seymour, the fourth husband of her stepmother Katherine Parr? Seymour had been seen in his nightgown “barelegged in his slippers” entering Elizabeth’s chamber to tickle or pursue her in her bed.

Charles IX was 13 when his mother proposed him as a bridegroom. Elizabeth was over 30.

Time and again Elizabeth stated unequivocally that she could not marry without meeting her intended first. It is highly unlikely that Catherine would have sent the young king of France on a mission to England to marry this older woman. Perhaps she had in mind to bring her son along to the meeting she suggested between herself and the English queen. When Charles did marry, it was to the Habsburg heiress Elisabeth of Austria. Never in good health, Charles, a veritable mommy’s boy, died at the age of 23. His brother, Henry III, one of France’s most underrated kings, succeeded him and speedily married the French noblewoman Louise de Lorraine, leaving only one brother to sue for the hand of the aging Virgin Queen.

Thus it was that Francis, the 26-year-old Duke of Anjou, the youngest of Catherine’s sons, came to England in the autumn of 1581 to pursue in person the proxy courtship so effectively undertaken by Jean de Simier, his representative, whom the playful, 47-year-old queen had called her “monkey” and with whom she flirted like a girl. When Anjou arrived in person he presented Elizabeth with a beautiful diamond ring and was permitted by the queen, always so proud of her elegant hands, to place it on her finger. This gesture appeared to have done the trick. Paranque relates dramatically how, on November 22, Elizabeth appalled her counselors and longtime paramour the Earl of Leicester by publicly announcing: “The Duke of Anjou shall be my husband.” Being Elizabeth, she changed her mind the next day.

Anjou returned to France deeply humiliated and died of malaria two years later. By that time, his broken-hearted mother knew that the diplomatic chess game she had played with Elizabeth of England for nearly a quarter of a century was coming to an unhappy end. Anjou’s failure did, at least, spare England from having a king who had been christened Hercule.

The reason for the final rupture was not the aftereffects of the dreadful massacre of French Protestants in Paris in 1572, or Elizabeth’s insincere approach to marriage negotiations, or even her expensive sponsorship of Protestants in France and the Netherlands, but Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary flits in and out of the pages of Paranque’s book like a troublesome moth, but her execution in 1587 was crucial to the final abandonment of any pretense at Anglo-French amity.

Paranque writes powerfully of the death of Catherine but skims over the assassination of her son, Henry III, the last of the Valois, later the same year of 1589. Meanwhile, we are told, the defeat of the Armada led England into a Golden Age, an assertion hard to square with the reality of the 1590s. The cost of Elizabeth’s involvement in war in Europe was weighing heavily on the economy, and parliament was just beginning to flex its muscles, which would lead to civil wars in the three kingdoms of Britain half a century later.

Paranque’s portrayal of Gloriana owes a great deal to the astonishing longevity of Elizabethan propaganda. Her reign was no Golden Age for anyone who did not conform to her religious settlement, and her oft-quoted desire not to make a window into men’s souls was undermined by the reality that religious dissent was a danger to the state, and therefore to her throne and own life.

Blood, Fire and Gold is a marvelous story of a relationship between two powerful women in an age when females were believed to be unsuited to the exercise of government. For many readers its interest will lie in its unfamiliarity, and it certainly does fill a gap in a neglected area of 16th-century history. But it is sobering that the aspirations of Elizabeth and of Catherine died with them. The real victor in what was basically a triangular relationship was the ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose son, James I, united the crowns of England and Scotland in 1603. Elizabeth had indeed, as she is supposed to have said, been “barren stock”, and Catherine de’ Medici, for all that she gave birth to ten children, died knowing that not one of them would sit on the throne of her rival and “good sister” across the water.

Linda Porter is a historian and the author of several books, including Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II and Royal Renegades: The Children of Charles I and the English Civil Wars