After the Peace of Saint-Germain in August of 1570, Catherine de’Medici turned to negotiating marriage alliances to shore up France’s international position. She enjoyed arranging prestigious marriages for her children. Her foreign policy played Catholic against Protestant and these agreements would bind both religions while assuring the king would be beholden to neither. Catherine tried to marry her son Charles to Queen Elizabeth I who was fifteen years older. When that didn’t come to fruition, she successfully negotiated his marriage to Elisabeth of Austria, daughter of the Catholic Emperor Maximilian II. This union solidified a crucial alliance and at the same time revitalized the French court.
Charles was young, impressionable and completely dominated by his mother. He was sickly as a child, prone to fevers and had a persistent cough. As he grew older, he became subject to frenzied, manically violent rages. After these rages, he would become weak and remorseful. He ate very little and over-exercised until he was exhausted and short of breath.
Elisabeth of Austria was born on July 5, 1554 in Vienna. She was the daughter of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor of the House of Habsburg and Maria of Spain. Maria was the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Elisabeth was the fifth child and second daughter in a family of sixteen, eight of whom survived infancy. Elisabeth lived with her older sister Anna and her younger brother Matthias in a pavilion in the gardens of the Stallburg which was part of the Hofburg Palace complex.
The children lived a sheltered and privileged life in a strict atmosphere. They were raised Roman Catholic and Elisabeth appears to have been her father’s favorite child. She grew up speaking German and Spanish but never was taught French, even after a French marriage was considered. Elisabeth excelled at her studies and grew up to be blond and pale-skinned with a flawless figure. She was considered a great beauty. When the French Maréchal de Vieilleville visited Vienna in 1562, he saw the eight-year-old Elisabeth and was so impressed by her looks he exclaimed “Your Majesty, this is the Queen of France!”
Catherine de’Medici was eager to broker a marriage with one of the daughters of the Holy Roman Emperor. Elisabeth’s sister Anna had once been promised to the King of France but King Philip II of Spain pre-empted this contract and married Anna himself. Anna was older and more desirable so Catherine’s plan was foiled. Charles’ marriage to Elisabeth had been first discussed after his sister Elisabeth of Valois, Queen of Spain died in October of 1568. Elisabeth was a younger daughter but she was still an archduchess and Catherine was impressed with the report of the Maréchal regarding Elisabeth’s appearance. Charles was shown a portrait of Elisabeth before the marriage and his comment was “At least she won’t give me a headache”.
Albert de Gondi was appointed by Catherine to negotiate the marriage treaty. The contract was ratified in January of 1570 and a proxy marriage took place in October in the cathedral of Speyer with Elisabeth’s uncle Archduke Ferdinand of Further Austria-Tyrol standing in for King Charles IX. After appropriate celebrations, Elisabeth left Austria in early November. The rains during the voyage were so appalling the roads became impassable so the decision was made to have the official wedding celebrated in the small border town of Mézières in Champagne. Before reaching her destination, Elisabeth stopped in Sedan.
The king’s younger brothers Henri, Duke d’Anjou and François, Duke d’Alençon officially greeted Elisabeth. Charles was there too, dressed incognito as a soldier, mixing with the crowd in order to view his bride without her knowing. Charles was delighted with what he saw. Although the French treasury was empty, Catherine was determined to have a splendid wedding and raised the money needed from the clergy and by levying a special tax on cloth sales. She wanted to present a spectacle that showcased both the bride and groom being descendants of Charlemagne and featuring herself as Artemis, the bringer of peace.
Elisabeth arrived on November 25, 1570 in Mézières, a small frontier town on the border of her father’s empire in a gilded pink and white coach, accompanied by a huge entourage of German nobles. The crowds greeted her enthusiastically. Charles roamed the crowd incognito, watching her pass by. The formal wedding ceremony was celebrated the next day with the Cardinal of Bourbon officiating. As Charles observed his bride approach during the Nuptial Mass, he was completely struck by her beauty. She was wearing a silver gown embroidered with pearls, a purple cloak decorated with fleur-de-lis and a crown studded with rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds.
Everyone returned to Paris to prepare for the king’s state entry in March. Catherine raised the money for the celebrations by pawning and mortgaging many of her own private possessions. In January, Elisabeth fell ill with bronchitis at the Château of Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne. Catherine and Charles personally nursed her until she recovered.
Charles made a state entry into Paris on March 6. There was a ceremony where Catherine symbolically turned over power to Charles. He thanked her before Parlement on March 11. Elizabeth was crowned at St. Denis on March 25 and four days later she made a state entry into Paris. She wore a cloak of royal ermine studded with precious gems and decorated with fleur-de-lis. Her crown was gold, covered with large pearls which perfectly set off her blond beauty. The crowd was impressed with the litter of silver cloth. Beside her sat her brothers-in-law, Anjou and Alençon who were as bejeweled as she was. A vast entourage followed her and she deeply impressed the Parisians.
Elisabeth spoke little French and seemed completely smitten with her husband and sincerely devoted herself to his happiness. Charles found her fresh and unspoiled and wanted to preserve her sweetness. He taught her French ways and manners. She was conscientious and extremely devote, hearing Mass twice and day and spending hours in prayer. Catherine took great pains to shield Elisabeth from the wantonness and malevolence of the court.
Charles’ brother Anjou enjoyed teasing and frustrating him. Anjou initiated Elisabeth into the ways of the court and flirted with her in front of Charles, infuriating him. While Charles was away on hunting excursions, Elisabeth would join her mother-in-law in meeting with ambassadors and other foreign notables. One of the few friends she had at court was her sister-in-law, Marguerite, known as Margot. Elisabeth’s presence at court did little to spoil Charles’ routine.
Charles had a mistress in Paris named Marie Touchet, the daughter of a bourgeois Protestant of Flemish stock. They met in Orleans in 1569 and he immediately fell in love with her and carried on the affair in secret for many months. She was a country girl who entertained no aspirations. Charles let his sister Margot in on the secret and asked her to admit Marie into her household as one of her ladies. When Catherine de’Medici found out about the affair, she made inquiries and approved. Marie had no influence on the king. She gave birth to a son who was named after his father and was always known as ‘Petit Charles’. Charles continued this affair during his marriage to Elisabeth.
In September of 1571, the Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny came to Blois to meet with the king and Catherine de’Medici. The king was trying to walk a fine line between the ultra-Catholics and the Protestants. Some viewed this meeting with great suspicion. Elisabeth thought of Coligny as the devil incarnate and her attitude reflected the people’s true feelings. When he was presented to Elisabeth, Coligny bowed, stepped forward and knelt on one knee, reaching to kiss her hand. Her inexperience in the lack of diplomacy became obvious when she pulled away from him with a gasp of horror to avoid being touched by him. The courtiers snickered nervously at her reaction as they were used to hiding their own feelings.
On August 18, 1572, the marriage of the king’s sister Margot and Henri of Navarre was celebrated in Paris. Elisabeth was pregnant and staying at Fontainebleau in the countryside. The wedding ceremony passed and the festivities began the next day. On Friday, August 22, the government recess for the wedding ended and the celebrations concluded. What happened next has been the subject of conjecture for over four hundred years.
Suffice it to say, whoever ordered or sanctioned it, one of the bloodiest massacres in French history now occurred. During the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, at least three thousand Protestants were killed in Paris alone. Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was brazenly assassinated during all the turmoil. Elisabeth, when told by her servants that her husband had ordered the massacre, asked God’s forgiveness for Charles. The killing didn’t stop that day. Tens of thousands of Protestants all throughout France died afterward. The Wars of Religion resumed with a vengeance.
Elisabeth gave birth to her daughter Marie-Elisabeth on October 27, 1572. One of her godmothers was Queen Elizabeth I of England. On August 21, 1573, Polish envoys arrived in Paris to greet their newly elected king, Charles’ brother Henri, Duke d’Anjou. Catherine, Charles and Elisabeth greeted them in the Louvre. The ambassadors were highly cultured and multilingual, speaking French with an impeccable accent.
By now, Charles was extremely ill with what was diagnosed as tuberculosis. He was suffering from serious fevers and coughing up blood. In November of 1573, he insisted his brother Henri depart for Poland to accept his crown as king, even though Henri was his heir. By May of 1574, Charles was growing weaker by the day and suffering pitifully.
By the middle of the month, it was obvious Charles would die although he remained lucid. By the end of the month, he could no longer leave his bed. He was sweating profusely and struggling to breathe. His sheets were blood-soaked and had to be constantly changed. Elisabeth remained in his chamber and instead of sitting beside her husband’s bed, she sat opposite, gazing lovingly at him and rarely speaking. He gazed at her as Elisabeth wept many tears, drying her eyes frequently. Charles died on May 30, 1574.
Henri, now King of France, managed to escape from Poland and travelled to the court of Elisabeth’s father Emperor Maximilian II where he was graciously received. After Charles’ death, Elisabeth’s father secretly hoped she would marry Henri, but the new king had other ideas. He returned to France and was crowned King. Elisabeth, not quite twenty-years-old and the mother of a mere daughter was not recognized or rewarded as her status deserved and she became determined to return to Vienna. Her father settled her dower and arranged for her return. According to the laws of France, a woman could not inherit the throne. Marie-Elisabeth was a daughter of France and therefore could not leave the country, forcing Elisabeth to forsake her. Elisabeth made one last visit to Amboise to kiss her child goodbye and departed on November 25, 1575.
She remained at Nancy for a short time with the Duke of Lorraine and then returned to Vienna. When her sister Anna, Queen of Spain died in 1580, Elisabeth’s name was mentioned as a new spouse for Philip II but she refused. Because she wished to enter a convent, she founded the monastery of St. Clare in Vienna and also created the Church of All Saints in Prague. When her sister-in-law Margot left her husband Henri of Navarre in 1587, she was impoverished and reduced to begging for money from Elisabeth. Elisabeth agreed to turn over half of her dowry income to Margot for her living expenses. When Elisabeth died in 1592, the income ceased and Margot was forced to divest herself of all her portable assets, including her silverware just to keep her tiny household running.
Elisabeth’s daughter Marie-Elisabeth lived in Amboise and Blois before moving to the Hôtel d’Anjou in Paris near the Louvre. Henri, Duke d’Anjou lived there before leaving for Poland and in 1573, he gave the house to his sister Margot, so Marie-Elisabeth knew her aunt and uncle well. She was described as having a gentleness of spirit and goodness of character just like her mother.
Marie-Elisabeth became ill and died on April 2, 1578. An autopsy was performed on the remains and it was determined she died of a pulmonary infection, most likely tuberculosis. On April 9, Marie-Elisabeth’s remains were taken from the Hôtel d’Anjou to Notre-Dame for her funeral and the next day she was buried in the Basilica of St. Denis next to her father. Marie-Elisabeth’s mother retired to her convent of St. Clare and died there on January 22, 1592. She was buried in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.
Further reading: “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France” by Leonie Frieda, “Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France” by Kathleen Wellman, “Profiles in Power: Catherine de’Medici” by R. J. Knecht, “The Rival Queens: Catherine de’Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom” by Nancy Goldstone, “Elisabeth of Austria and Mari-Elisabeth of France: Represented and Remembered” by Estelle Paranque in “Forgotten Queens in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Political Agency, Myth-Making, and Patronage” edited by Valerie Schutte and Estelle Paranque