Were The Reigns of Catherine de’ Medici and Mary I of England as violent as popular historic thought have allowed us to believe?

Catherine de’ Medici, the ‘Serpent Queen’, and ‘Bloody Mary’ I are often regarded as two of the most violent monarchs ever to reign. The two Queens ruled at similar periods. Catherine was Queen Consort to Francis II of France from 1547–1559 and had influence over her sons as Kings of France until 1574, and Mary I was Queen of England and Wales from 1553–1558. Despite their political accomplishments in two of the most powerful countries of the period, the monarchs are largely remembered for their violent opposition to Protestantism. Although other monarchs presided over more markedly violent reigns, it is the reigns of these two Queens which seem to be synonymous with violence. Therefore, it is important to ask the questions: why have Catherine and Mary’s reigns been so described, and are such views justified?  

Catherine’s long regency was marked by the French Wars of Religion between the Huguenots (Protestants) and Catholics. Although Catherine is portrayed as a murderer who hated Protestants, in fact, the reality was quite different. Catherine was a fervent Catholic with a strong desire for France to remain a Catholic country. However, she was politically savvy and understood the importance of preserving stability in the realm to secure the dynasty. Therefore, while in power she worked hard to find peaceful compromises between Protestants and Catholics. Unfortunately, Catherine failed to fully grasp the theological issues that drove the Huguenots and resorted to hard-line policies epitomised by the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572. It was this event that earned Catherine the reputation of a violent monarch. The massacre comprised of a series of targeted assassinations and a wave of Catholic mob violence, directed against the Huguenots. It was believed to be at Catherine’s instigation, as it took place a few days after the wedding of her daughter Margaret to Protestant Henry of Navarre. Many of the wealthiest and most prominent Huguenots were in Catholic Paris to attend the wedding, making them easy targets. The massacre began five days after the wedding, under the order of the King Charles IX, Catherine’s son, and spread from Paris to the countryside and to other urban centres. Up to 30,000 Protestants across France were killed, including many prominent Huguenot leaders such as Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. This was a turning point in the French War of Religion as the loss of leaders crippled the Huguenot political movement. This event did not just affect France but had repercussions across Europe, as it was viewed by Protestants as evidence that Catholicism was a bloody and treacherous religion. It was also the event that earned Catherine the reputation of a vicious ruler, despite the fact that it was ordered by her son, Charles IX.   

Mary I’s reputation during her reign is strikingly similar to Catherine’s. Mary I was the first Queen of England to rule in her own right. She was regarded as a violent monarch because of her persecution of Protestant heretics. During her five-year reign Mary was responsible for the deaths of 300 religious dissenters, who were burned at the stake. Mary was not the only ruler who dealt with heretics by burning them. At the time, it was common practice across Europe to burn heretics as it was believed that heresy was infectious; burning ensured that the “infection’ would not spread and poison wider society. Also, if bodies were burned then it would deny the ‘heretics’ the possibility of the Christian belief of the resurrection of the body. Mary’s father, Henry VIII, executed 81 people for heresy, and Elizabeth I executed a similar number for the same crime. So why has Mary’s rule been portrayed as particularly ‘bloody’? One reason might be that Mary was the first Queen of England to rule alone. Her marriage to Phillip II of Spain depicted her as an infatuated, weak-willed woman who placed earthly love ahead of the welfare of her country. However, perhaps more significantly, it must be noted that history is written by winners and Mary’s successors were largely Protestant. Therefore, her reign was described in such a wicked way as a form of Protestant propaganda, in a similar manner to that of Catherine’s. This view of Mary was popularised by the Protestant ‘martyrologist’ John Foxe in his bestselling work Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. His work was a detailed account of every martyr condemned to death for his or her faith by the Catholic Church. It contained 57 illustrations which depicted gruesome torture and the burning of Protestant martyrs. This work was so successful, in depicting Mary as ‘bloody’, because it appealed to the largely illiterate audience of the sixteenth century. The woodcuts aroused emotions, without the need to read the detail, and many of the accounts became folklore stories, passed down by word of mouth. Therefore, the portrayal Mary’s reign as ‘bloody’ was largely a piece of anti-Catholic propaganda. Elizabeth, who was more politically astute, killed 1,000 people, whom she called Catholic ‘rebels’ or ‘traitors’ rather than referring to them as ‘heretics’.  However, Elizabeth’s reign was never classed as particularly violent, which was largely due to her religious convictions.  

Therefore, both Mary I and Catherine de’ Medici’s reigns were viewed as violent, even though they were not particularly more violent than the reigns of contemporaneous monarchs. This was largely due to their religious convictions. Both Catholic monarchs were painted in a heretical light by Protestant chroniclers to illustrate that Catholicism was a violent religion. Secondly, both women had strong political beliefs, in a period dominated by male power. Women in such positions were seen as anomalies which further developed the view that their reigns had been extraordinarily violent. In this period, it was unusual for women to hold power, let alone use it to effect political change that would be favourable to them and their reign. The legacy of these two powerful leaders has been tarnished by misogyny and religious rhetoric and, while neither of the reigns were without controversy, the contempt with which they are remembered seems unjust.  

Written by Sophia Aiello


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Sutherland, N. M. “Catherine de Medici: The Legend of the Wicked Italian Queen.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 9, no. 2 (1978): 45–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/2539662.

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