Starz’s ‘The Serpent Queen’ tells the incredible story of the rise of Catherine de Medici from the utter misfortune that followed her since her birth to becoming one of the most powerful women of her time. An Italian feeling completely out of place in France, and then becoming its queen, is a story worth capturing the interest of the viewers. There are a lot of things that the show sheds light on, but the more one knows about Catherine, the more interesting she becomes. The series does well to portray her sharp intellect and witty charm that keeps her alive throughout the tumult of the French court. But how does that connect to the title of the show? Why is Catherine known as the Serpent Queen? Let’s find out.
Catherine de Medici’s Association to the Title The Serpent Queen
The term “serpent” is used to describe someone poisonous, someone, who doesn’t attack directly but bides their time and then takes their enemies by surprise. Someone, whose very presence can prove deadly. Over the course of her reign, Catherine’s image was formed around this idea. One of the things that need to be kept in mind while understanding Catherine’s position in France is that she was considered an outsider. French, at the time, did not harbor a liking for Italians, and either didn’t take them seriously enough or perceived their actions in such grave light that all things seemed to be their fault.
In her case, Catherine was the representation of all things Italian to the French, which made it easier for people to vilify her using titles such as “the serpent queen”, “the black queen” and “the maggot from Italy’s tomb”. Because she was a woman, and an intelligent and ambitious one at that, with the power that others in the court vied for, the ruin of Catherine’s reputation worked in their favor. Considering this, there is a good chance that most, if not all, of the accusations and conspiracy theories surrounding her, were propagated by the people who wanted to see her gone.
When Catherine came to France, she brought with her a love for sciences like astrology and astronomy, along with the trend of using scented gloves, among other uses of perfumes. Her interest in these things was considered to be a sign of her interest in sorcery, which further stretched into an investment in the occult and dark arts. The fact that people like Nostradamus, known for his dark predictions about the world’s fate, were her patrons, convinced people that she dabbled in black magic.
The rumors of her “unorthodox” ways to get what she wants started to spread from the trouble surrounding her pregnancy. Even after a decade of her marriage with Henry, Catherine had been unsuccessful at producing an heir. When the pressure started to mount on her, especially with the threat of sending her back to Italy, Catherine found herself ready to do whatever it took to get herself pregnant, even if it meant drinking the urine of animals. Such tricks on her part were considered to be unnatural, especially when she not only succeeded in producing an heir but got pregnant a total of ten times.
The event that really caught people’s imagination was the death of Jeanne d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre. While Catherine was a devout Catholic, Jeanne was a staunch Protestant. The difference between the faiths was already the cause of trouble for France, so Catherine decided to allay the upheaval by marrying her daughter with Jeanne’s son. The merging of the Catholic and Protestant faith was supposed to send out a message of unity to the public. But two months before the wedding, Jeanne suddenly died. The fact that she had started to second guess the decision and might have backed out of it made some people come up with the theory that Catherine had killed her to keep her plans in motion. Moreover, it was rumored that the cause of death was the poisoned glove that Catherine had gifted to her daughter’s mother-in-law.
The attack against Catherine continued to pick pace over the years. In 1576, a pamphlet titled ‘Marvellous Discourse on the Life, Actions, and Deportment of Catherine de Médicis, Queen Mother’ was published, which accused the queen of practicing black magic and using potions to subdue her enemies and elevating her status in the court. Along with this, it was also rumored that she had a group of women whom she sent to seduce men in French nobility to get dirt on them and then use it for her own political purposes. While all of these rumors were —just that— rumors, Catherine’s failures, like the St. Bartholomew Massacre, in which thousands of people died, did nothing to help her reputation.
In studying Catherine de Medici, none of the historians have come up with anything that proves the accusations against her. The “suspicious” death of Jeanne d’Albert is considered more likely to be because of tuberculosis rather than poisoned gloves. People like Leonie Frieda, who wrote Catherine’s bestselling biography, have postulated that most of the claims against Catherine are preposterous.
For example, if she wanted someone dead, all she had to do was point a finger at them or look at them a certain way. Being in her position, it would have been much easier for her to have someone killed, rather than going about poisoning people herself. As for her political actions, she was in the French court. To hold on to the power she had at the time, she, much like everyone else in court, had to play the game of chess, wanting to stay ahead of everyone else. Most of the accusations against her are unfounded and titles such as “the serpent queen” were more in line with her character assassination rather than being an actual reflection of who she was.
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