Catherine de Medici was a Franco/Italian noblewoman who was Queen consort of France from 1547 until 1559, as the wife of King Henry II of France. Throughout his reign, Henry excluded Catherine from participating in state affairs and instead showered favours on his chief mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who wielded much influence over him. Henry's death thrust
Catherine into the political arena as mother of the frail fifteen-year-old King Francis II. When he died in 1560, she became regent on behalf of her ten-year-old son King Charles IX and was granted sweeping powers. After Charles died in 1574, Catherine played a key role in the reign of her third son, Henry III. He dispensed with her advice only in the last months of her life.
Catherine's three sons reigned in an age of almost constant civil and religious war in France. The problems facing the monarchy were complex and daunting. At first, Catherine compromised and made concessions to the rebelling Protestants, or Huguenots, as they became known. She failed, however, to grasp the theological issues that drove their movement. Later, she resorted in frustration and anger to hard-line policies against them. In return, she came to be blamed for the excessive persecutions carried out under her sons' rule, in particular for the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, in which thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris and throughout France.
Once in control of the royal purse, she launched a programme of artistic patronage that lasted for three decades. During this time, she presided over a distinctive late French Renaissance culture in all branches of the arts. The years in which they reigned have been called "the age of Catherine de Medici".
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