Marriage of Catherine de’ Medici and Prince Henri, Duke d’Orléans

Portrait of Catherine de’ Medici by François Clouet

Royal weddings were rarely fascinating fairytales of love – they aimed to foster allegiances and cement alliances.  Soon after his return home, Prince Henri, Duke d’Orléans (future King Henri II of France), found himself at the center of his father King François I’s marial plans for him.  Henri and his elder brother, Dauphin François, had spent 4 years and a half in Spanish captivity, and the longer it had taken France to collect an astronomical ransom that Emperor Charles V had demanded for the princes, the harsher the conditions of their imprisonment had been getting until they had been deprived of even basic necessities.  The incarceration had a profound psychological toll on the boys.

By the end of the 1520s, it was apparent that Henri’s possible betrothal to Mary Tudor, who was still a princess of the blood in accordance with the English law at the time, would not take place.  Having his sons back to France, King François turned his attention back to his Italian dream – to obtain the Duchy of Milan.  Therefore, the monarch opened negotiations with Pope Clement VII with regards to a betrothal between his niece, Catherine de’ Medici, and Henri d’Orléans.  The Supreme Pontiff resolved to accompany his niece to her new country with pomp.  The preliminary marriage contract was signed between them, and it was said in this document that:

“Clement should at his own discretion furnish his illustrious relative with clothing, ornaments, and jewels.”    

The Head of the Roman Catholic Church did not intend to disappoint the most extravagant Renaissance ruler in Europe – his new ally, François.  Clement contacted one of the most beautiful and remarkable women of the time – Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, who set fashion trends and gave shining examples of hair style and clothing to emulate.  Clement corresponded with Isabella, discussing Catherine’s trousseau, and she sent to Rome from Mantua a great deal of precious stones and fabrics.  As Catherine was not a stunning beauty, Isabella was determined to help the Florentine girl impress the French with her gorgeous clothes.  With this in mind, Isabella sent to the Vatican several pounds of gold and silver, as well as a few pounds of silk for the purpose of using them to embroider Catherine’s gowns.  Clement arranged that all the clothes were produced by the finest Florentine seamstresses in the style recommended by Isabella.

Portrait of Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici), 1531

Moreover, the bed hangings and black-and-crimson silk sheets were part of the bride’s rich trousseau.  Catherine’s undergarments were as splendid as her gown.  At the time, Allessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, who was known as ‘Il Moro’, or ‘The Moor,’ due to his dark complexion, coordinated the preparation of his cousin’s trousseau in Florence.  Allesandro ordered many pounds of gold and silver together with significant quantities of cloth of gold and silver, as well as lace, brocades, damasks, and other expensive fabrics of various colors.  Catherine’s jewelry consisted of ropes of pearls, earrings, rings, golden belts, and many stunning items.  The most famous among them was the spectacular pear-shaped pearls, which Catherine would later give to Mary, Queen of Scots, as a gift on her wedding to François II of France, and which would years later be confiscated by Queen Elizabeth I of England after Mary’s execution.  To cover all these expenses, Allesandro raised the taxes in the city and collected about 35,000 écus, which caused outrage among the Florentine populace and made him even more unpopular.

At the same time, Pope Clement in Rome was raising funds to pay for Catherine’s trousseau.  He used not only monies from the papal treasury, but also borrowed 50,000 écus from one of their relatives – the banker Filippo Strozzi.  On the Pontiff’s orders, parures of emeralds, sapphires, rubies with a pendant pearl, and enormous diamonds were created by the best Roman jewelers.  At the Pope’s behest, the casket of rock crystal was manufactured by the celebrated gem engraver and goldsmith Valerio Belli Vincentino.  The casket would especially impress François de Valois: it included 24 panels that portrayed scenes from the life of Jesus Christ with figures of 4 Evangelists at each corner, and it was set in silver gilt.  In total, Catherine’s trousseau had than 150 garments.

Portrait of Ippolito de’ Medici

Portraits of the bride and bridegroom were painted and exchanged.  They of course flattered the sitters, especially because they were royals who would enter into a political marriage.  Duke Alessandro of Florence commissioned the famous Giorgio Vasari to create his cousin’s portrait, and the artist found Catherine’s personality captivating, although Vasari commented that the girl had irregular features.  One amusing story cannot be proved: when Vasari took a break, Catherine took the brush and remodeled some of her features to resemble those of a Moorish woman.  I’m not sure that it happened because Catherine had no motive to make herself look worse than her real appearance, for she was not a beauty.  Some historians suggest that Catherine and her another cousin, Ippolito de’ Medici, were infatuated with each other, and for this reason, Ippolito was forced by Clement to become a cardinal, so Catherine could have acted so to worsen the affect her portrait could have on the King of France in the hope that the wedding plans would be derailed if François did not like her, and then she would have been able to marry Ippolito.  This is the only reasonable explanation that comes to my mind if we assume that this story is true.

On the 1st of September 1533, a farewell banquet was given at Palazzo Medici in Florence in honor of Catherine de’ Medici.  Then the bride commenced her journey to the coast; Allesandro accompanied her for some time, while Ippolito traveled with her to France.  Catherine’s retinue was huge: it included her Florentine ladies-in-waiting, some noblewomen, and artists, as well as 70 Frenchmen who had been tasked by the Valois ruler to escort Catherine to her new country.  At the port of La Spezia, Catherine was met by her uncle by marriage – John Stewart, Duke of Albany – who waited for her with a large escort of 18 galleys, 3 ships, and 6 brigantines.  Then they safely crossed to Villefranche-sur-Mer, located in Provence on the modern French Riviera, where they disembarked and awaited for the Bishop of Rome.  Soon a French emissary arrived with royal gifts for the bride, which pleased her a lot.  In a month, Pope Clement finally arrived with his retinue, including 13 cardinals, 30 bishops, and other members of the Roman curia, as well as many Italian nobles.  Catherine and Clement, together with Albany and Ippolito, sailed on the galley, which was called ‘La Duchessina’ in Catherine’s honor.  The Medici armada arrived at Marseilles on the 11th of October, where Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France, already awaited them.

         The city-port of Marseilles

Catherine de’ Medici and the Bishop of Rome were joyfully welcomed in the city.  When the flotilla anchored in the port, numerous cannons fired salvoes in unison.  In the harbor, a band of musicians and a cheering crowd greeted them under charming French and Italian tunes.  Both elated, Clement and Catherine spent the night outside the city in the wooden palace, which had been constructed on Montmorency’s orders.  The entrée of the Pope into the city was scheduled for the next morning: Clement was enthroned on the sedia gestatoria, or the gestatorial chair – a ceremonial throne on which Popes were carried on shoulders until 1978.  The Holy Sacrament was carried on a richly caparisoned stallion behind the Pontiff, and then came a line of the cardinals and bishops in their litters and chariots, each draped in magnificent fabrics.  Among them, there was Catherine de’ Medici, surrounded by her nicely dressed maids and gentlemen.

The cortege arrived at the specially constructed residence situated near the palace of the Counts de Provence on La Place Neuve, or the Place-Neuve.  The King of France and his enormous retinue, including his family, made a grand entrée into Marseilles on the 13th of October.   After he had been lodged at the Place-Neuve, François went to Pope Clement.  Between the mentioned 2 buildings, there was a spacious chamber for celebrations, audiences, and interviews, where François and Clement met to finalize the betrothal agreement.  They signed the contract according to which the Pope and France would be allied against Emperor Charles V and would reconquer the Duchy of Milan, installing Catherine and Henri as Duke and Duchess of Milan.  Clement pledged to pay a dowry of 100,000 écus and to give France Parma, Piacenza, and Urbino.

                  Meeting of King François I and Pope Clement VII in Marseilles

Catherine’s triumph, which she probably considered her luck and happiness, happened on the 23rd of October 1533.  In her biography of Catherine de’ Medici, Leonie Frieda writes:

“Catherine officially entered Marseilles, riding a roan horse decked out in gold brocade. She was preceded by six horses, five caparisoned in scarlet and gold, and one grey charger in silver cloth led by her cousin Ippolito’s pages. Wearing an outfit of gold and silver silk, Catherine’s appearance did not disappoint the crowd. A fine horsewoman and brilliantly dressed, she made a striking impression.  Among her train rode twelve ‘demoiselles’ with a royal and papal guard. A coach draped in black velvet with two pages on horseback also followed.”  

Portrait of Henri de Valois, Duke d’Orléans, by Corneille de Lyon.

The girl, who would become one of the most notorious queens in history, must have looked impressive.  Just as Isabella d’Este had predicted, the extraordinary richness of Catherine’s raiment and clothes of her party had a considerable impact upon everyone.  Catherine must have resembled a fabulous princess, whose lack of beauty was compensated by her youth, style, and her gorgeous attire.  King François and Pope Clement, together with the ruler’s 3 sons, observed this spectacle.  After Catherine had been assisted in climbing down from her horse, she went to the Pope and knelt to him, kissing the hem of his crimson robes.  François hoisted the girl to her feet and kissed her on both of her cheeks, and then his sons did the same.  Henri, who was not fond of this marriage from the beginning, must have been disappointed with his bride’s appearance, while Catherine is likely to have been exhilarated, provided that she had forgotten Ippolito.  Queen Eleanor, who was usually neglected by François, attended this event, and she warmly welcomed Catherine.

The Valois and papal courts spent several days celebrating.  The warm weather and the Provencal air of romance around them contributed to the relaxation of morals of many courtiers.  The bride adored her fiancé: at fourteen Henri was a tall, handsome, and muscular, though slightly awkward and somber.  She did not realize that Henri jousted and danced with her with a fake eagerness because François had instructed him to do so.  On the 28th of October, the ruler came to Catherine’s rooms and escorted her to a chapel.  Catherine was attired in a gown of golden brocade with a violet corsage of velvet studded with gems and trimmed with ermine; upon her head there was a crown of gold.   After Mass, the bride and bridegroom exchanged rings and vows.  Catherine became the Duchess d’Orléans, not knowing yet what fate had in store for her.

The wedding banquet was organized, followed by a masked ball, during which François and many inebriated guests, even cardinals and bishops, relaxed to a substantial degree.  Ippolito, who had once been infatuated with Catherine, eagerly participated in the masquerade, as if his feelings for his cousin had vanished in a sea of wine that flowed like rivers.  At around midnight, the bridal couple left for the consummation.  Catherine was led by Queen Eleanor to the nuptial bedchamber, her maids trailing after them.  That night, the newlyweds consummated their marriage on a splendidly decorated bed that is reported to have cost 60,000-70,000 écus.  François stayed in the room until the deed was done, and the next morning, Clement found the couple still in bed.  The consummation rendered the marriage indissoluble, and the Pope blessed them for procreation.  This was followed by another exchange of gifts.  The Pontiff created 4 new French cardinals, while François invested 4 members of the papal entourage with the Order of Saint-Michel.

Marriage of Catherine de’ Medici and Prince Henri, Duke d’Orléans in Marseilles

The monarch and his court parted their ways on the 13th of November 1533.  Queen Eleanor, Catherine, Queen Eleanor, and the ladies-in-waiting remained behind together with the Bishop of Rome, whose journey was postponed due to autumn storms in the Mediterranean Sea.  Catherine and Eleanor would join the monarch and the Valois court in Burgundy by mid-November.  After blessing the young duchess, Pope Clement whispered to her while they were still in Provence:

“A spirited girl will always conceive children.”  

A tournament after the marriage of Catherine de’ Medici and Prince Henri, Duke d’Orléans

It was the last time when Catherine saw the Supreme Pontiff alive.  Clement would die in Rome on the 25th of September 1534.  Her dowry would not be paid, and the territories promised to François would not come into the French hands.  Fate had a cruel sense of humor: the dream of Milan would again slid out of François’ grasp, while Catherine would remain alone in a hostile court that would treat her like a daughter of Italian merchants.  Exasperated by the absence of any gains from Henri’s marriage to Catherine, François would later announce, ‘J’ai reçu la fille toute nue’ (The girl has come to me stark naked).  She would later become the Dauphine of France, but Catherine would have to survive miserable years of her “infertility,” tolerating the rumors of her possible divorce, as well as the contempt of many French aristocrats.  Catherine would also have to suffer from Henri’s affair with Diane de Poitiers, who would remain his favorite until his death in 1559.  Catherine’s path to her ruthless and contradictory reign was only beginning.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville