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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 13 — From Rise of Protestantism in France (1510) to Publication of the Institutes (1536)

Chapter 14 — Catherine de Medici

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St. Paul — Calvin — Desire to Labor in Paris — Driven from this Field — Francis I. Intrigues to Outmanoeuvre Charles V. — Offers the Hand of his Second Son to the Pope's Niece — Joy of Clement VII. — The Marriage Agreed on — Catherine de Medici — Rise of the House of Medici — Cosmo I. — His Patronage of Letters and Scholars — Fiesole — Descendants of Cosmo — Clement VII. — Birth of Catherine de Medici — Exposed to Danger — Lives to Mount the Throne of France — Catherine as a Girl — Her Fascination — Her Tastes — Her Morals — Her Love of Power; etc.

ST. PAUL when converted fondly hoped to abide at Jerusalem, and from this renowned metropolis, where the Kings of Judah had reigned, where the prophets of Jehovah and One greater than all prophets had spoken, he purposed to spread abroad the light among his countrymen. But a new dispensation had commenced, and there must be found for it a new center.

In Judaea, Paul would have had only the Synagogue for his audience, and his echoes would have died away on the narrow shore of Palestine. He must speak where his voice would sound throughout the world. He must carry the Gospel of his master through a sphere as wide as that which the Greek philosophy had occupied, and subjugate by the power of the Cross tribes as remote as those Rome had vanquished by the force of her arms.

And so, too, was it with one who has been styled the second Paul of the Christian dispensation. The plan which Calvin had formed to himself of his life's labors, after his conversion, had Paris and France as its center. Nearest his heart, and occupying the foreground in all his visions of the future, was his native land. It needed but the Gospel to make France the first of the nations, and its throne the mightiest in Europe.

And the footing the Gospel had already obtained in that land seemed to warrant these great expectations. Had not the Gospel found martyrs in France, and was not this a pledge that it would yet triumph, on the soil which their blood had watered? Had not the palace opened its gates to welcome it? More wonderful still, it was forcing its way, despite the prejudice and pride of ages, into the halls of the Sorbonne. The many men of letters which France now contained were, with scarce an exception, favorable to the Reformation. The monarch, it is true, had not yet decided; but Margaret, so sweet in disposition, so sincere in her Protestant faith, would not be wanting in her influence with her brother, and thus there was ground to hope that when Francis did decide his choice would be given in behalf of Protestantism. So stood the matter then. Was it wonderful that Calvin should so linger around Paris, and believe that he saw in it the field of his future labors? But ever and anon, as he came back to it, and grasping the seed-basket, had begun again to sow, the sky would darken, the winds would begin to howl, and he was forced to flee before a new outburst of the tempest. At last he began to understand that it was not the great kingdom of France, with its chivalrous monarch and its powerful armies, that God had chosen to sustain the battle of the Reformation. A handful only of the French people had the Reformation called to follow it, whose destined work was to glorify it on their own soil by the heroism of the stake, and to help to sow it in others by the privations and sacrifices of exile. But before speaking of Calvin's third and last flight from Paris, let us turn to an incident big with the gravest consequences to France and Christendom.

The Pope, Spain, and France, the three visible puissances of the age, were by turns the allies and the adversaries of one another. The King of France, who was constantly scheming to recover by the arts of diplomacy those fair Italian provinces which he had lost upon the battle-field, was now plotting against Charles of Spain. The emperor, on his way to Augsburg, was at this moment closeted, as we have already related, with the Pope at Bologna. [1] Francis, who was not ignorant of these things, would frequently ask himself, "Who can tell what evil may be brewing against France? I shall out-manoeuvre the crafty Charles; I shall detach the Pope from the side of Spain, and secure him for ever to France;" — for in those days the Pontiff, as a dynastic power, counted for more than he afterwards did.

Francis thought that he had hit on a capital device for dealing a blow to his rival. What was it? The Pope, Clement VII., of the House of Medici, had a niece, a little fairy girl of fourteen; he would propose marriage between this girl and his second son, Henry, Duke of Orleans. The Pope, he did not doubt, would grasp at the brilliant offer; for Clement, he knew, was set on the aggrandisement of his family, and this marriage would place it among the royal houses of Europe. But was Francis I. in earnest? Would the King of France stoop to marry his son to the descendant of a merchant? Yes, Francis would digest the mortification which this match might cause him for the sake of the solid advantages, as he believed them to be, which it would bring with it. He would turn the flank of Charles, and take his revenge for Pavia. Had Francis feared the God of hosts as much as he did the emperor, and been willing to stoop as low for the Gospel as for the favor of the Pope, happy had it been for both himself and his kingdom.

Clement, when the offer was made to

him, could scarce believe it. [2] He was in doubt this moment; he was in ecstasy the next. The emperor soon discovered the affair, and foreseeing its consequences to himself, endeavored to persuade the Pope that the King of France was insincere, and counselled him to beware of the snake in the grass. The ambassadors of the French King, the Duke of Albany and the Cardinals Tournon and Gramont, protested that their master was in earnest, and pushed on the business till at last they had finished it. It was concluded that this girl, Catherine de Medici by name, should be linked with the throne of France, and that the blood of the Valois and the Medici should henceforth be mixed. The Pope strode through his palace halls, elate at the honor which had so unexpectedly come to his house, and refused to enter the league which the emperor was pressing him to form with him against Francis, and would have nothing to do with calling a Council for which Charles was importuning him. [3] And the King of France, on his part, thought that if he had stooped it had been to make a good bargain. He had stipulated that Catherine should bring with her as her dowry, Parma, Florence, Pisa, Leghorn, Modena, Urbino, and Reggio, besides the Duchy of Milan, and the Lordship of Genoa. This would leave little unrecovered of what had been lost on the field of Pavia. The Pope promised all without the least hesitation. To Clement it was all the same — much or little — for he had not the slightest intention of fulfilling aught of all that he had undertaken. [4]

Let us visit the birth-place of this woman — the natal lair of this tigress. Her cradle was placed in one of the most delicious of the Italian vales. Over that vale was hung the balmiest of skies, and around it rose the loveliest of mountains, conspicuous among which is the classic Fiesole. The Arno, meandering through it in broad pellucid stream, waters it, and the olive and cypress clothe its bosom with a voluptuous luxuriance. In this vale is the city of Florence, and here, in the fifteenth century, lived Cosmo, the merchant. Cosmo was the founder of that house from which was sprung the little bright-eyed girl who bore the name of Catherine de Medici — a name then innocent and sweet as any other, but destined to gather a most unenviable notoriety around it, till it has become one of the most terrific in history, the mention of which evokes only images of tragedies and horrors.

With regard to her famous ancestor, Cosmo, he was a merchant, we have said, and his ships visited the shores of Greece, the harbors of Egypt, and the towns on the sea-coast of Syria. It was the morning of the Renaissance, and this Florentine merchant had caught its spirit. He gave instructions to his sailing-masters, when they touched at the ports of the Levant and Egypt, to make diligent inquiry after any ancient manuscripts that might still survive, whether of the ancient pagan literature, or of the early Christian theology. His wishes were carefully attended to; and when his ships returned to Pisa, the port of Tuscany, they were laden with a double freight — the produce and fabrics of the countries they had visited, and the works of learned men which had slumbered for ages in the monasteries of Mount Athos, the convents of Lebanon, and in the cities and tombs of the Nile. Thus it was that Cosmo prosecuted, with equal assiduity and success, commerce and letters. By the first he laid the foundations of that princely house that long reigned over the Florentine Republic; and by the second he contributed powerfully to the recovery of the Greek and Hebrew languages, as they in their turn contributed to the outbreak of evangelical light which so gloriously distinguished the century that followed that in which Cosmo flourished. The sacred languages restored, and the Book of Heaven again opened, the pale, chilly dawn of the Renaissance warmed and brightened into the day of Christianity.

Another event contributed to this happy turn of affairs. Constantinople had just fallen, and the scholars of the metropolis of the East, fleeing from the arms of the Turk, and carrying with them their literary treasures, came to Italy, where they were warmly welcomed by Cosmo, and entertained with princely hospitality in his villa on Fiesole. The remains of that villa are still to be seen half-way between the base of the hill and the Franciscan monastery that crowns its summit, looking down on the unrivalled dome of Brunelleschi, which even in Cosmo's days adorned the beautiful city of Florence. The terrace is still pointed out, bordered by stately cypresses, where Cosmo daily walked, conversing with the illustrious exiles whom the triumph of barbarian arms had chased from their native East, the delicious vale of the Arno spread out at their feet, with the clustering towers of the city and the bounding hills in the nearer view, while the remoter mountains, rising peak on peak in the azure distance, lent grandeur to the scene. [5] "In gardens," says Hallam, "which Tully might have envied, with Ficino, Laudino, and Politian at his side, he delighted his hours of leisure with the beautiful visions of the Platonic philosophy, for which the summer stillness of an Italian sky appears the most congenial accompaniment."

His talents, his probity, and his great wealth placed Cosmo at the head of Florence, and gave him the government of the Duchy of Tuscany. His grandson Lorenzo — better known as Lorenzo the Magnificent — succeeded him in his vast fortune, his literary and aesthetic tastes, and his government of the duchy. Under Lorenzo the Medician family may be said to have fully blossomed. Lorenzo had three sons — Giuliano, Pietro, and Giovanni. The last (John) became Pope under the title of Leo

X. He inherited his father's taste for magnificence, and the Tuscan's love of pleasure. Under him the Vatican became the gayest court in all Christendom, and Rome a scene of revelry and delights not surpassed, if equalled, by any of the capitals of Europe. Leo's career has already come before us. He was far from "seeing the day of Peter," but he lived to see Luther's day, and went to the tomb as the morning-light of the Reformation was breaking over the world, closing with his last breath the halcyon era of the Papacy. He was succeeded in the chair of St. Peter, after the short Pontificate of Adrian of Utrecht, by another member of the same family of Medici, Giulio, a son of the brother of Leo X., who ascended the Papal throne under the title of Clement VII.

When Clement took possession of the Papal chair, he found a storm gathering round it. To whatever quarter of the sky his eye was turned, there he saw lowering clouds portending furious tempests in the future.

Luther was thundering in Germany; the Turk was marshalling his hordes and unfurling his standards on the borders of Christendom; nearer home, at his own gates almost, Francis and Charles were settling with the sword the question which of the two should be master of that fair land which both meanwhile were laying waste. The infuriated Germans, now scarcely amenable to discipline, were hanging like tempest on the brow of Alp, and threatening to descend on Rome and make a spoil of all the wealth and art with which the lavish Pontificate of Leo X. had enriched and beautified it.

To complete the unhappiness of the time the plague had broken out at Rome, and with pomps, festivities, and wassail, which went on all the same, were mingled corpses, funerals, and other gloomy insignia of the tomb. The disorders of Christendom had come to a head; all men demanded a remedy, but no remedy was found, and mainly for this reason, that no one understood that a cure to be effectual must begin with one's self. Men thought of reforming the world, but leaving the men that composed it as they were.

The new Pope saw very plainly that the air was thick and the sky lowering, but having vast confidence in his own consummate craft and knowledge of business, he set about, the task of replacing the world upon its foundations. This onerous work resolved itself into four divisions.

First, he had the abuses of his court and capital to correct; secondly, he had the poise to maintain between Spain and France, taking care that neither Power became too strong for him; thirdly, he had the Turk to drive out of Christendom; and fourthly, and mainly, he had the Reformation to extinguish; and this last gave him more concern than all the rest. His attention to business was unwearied; but labor as he might it would not all do. The mischiefs of ages could not be cured in a day, even granting that Clement had known how to cure them. But the storm did not come just yet; and Clement continued to toil and intrigue, to threaten the Turk, cajole the kings, and anathematise Lutheranism to no other effect than to have the advantage gained by the little triumph of to-day swept away by the terrible disaster of the morrow.

That woman who was just stepping upon a scene where she was destined long and conspicuously to figure, and where she was to leave as her memorials a throne dishonored and a nation demoralised, here demands a brief notice. Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo II., [6] the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who, as we have said, was the grandson of Cosmo I., or Cosmo il Vecchio, as he is styled at Florence, the founder of the greatness of the family, and so honourably remembered as the patron of letters and the friend of scholars. Her mother was Magdeleine de Boulogne, of the Royal House of France. [7] Her father survived her birth only a few days; her mother, too, died while she was still a child, and thus the girl, left an orphan, was taken under the care of her relative, Clement VII. An astrologer was said to have foretold at her birth that the child would be the ruin of her house; and the vaticination, as may well be believed, wrought her no good. She was but little cared for, or rather she was put, on purpose, in the way of receiving harm. She is said to have been placed in a basket, and hung outside the wall of a castle that was being besieged, in the hope that a chance arrow might rid them of her, and along with her the calamity which her continued existence was believed to portend. The missiles struck right and left, leaving their indentations on the wall, but the basket was not hit, and the child it enclosed lived on to occupy at a future day the throne of France.

When she comes before us, in connection with this marriage-scheme, Catherine de Medici was a gift of fourteen, of diminutive stature, of sylph-like form, with a fiery light streaming from her eyes. Bright, voluble, and passionate, she bounded from sport to sport, filling the halls where she played with the chatter of her talk, and the peals of her merriment. There was about her the power of a strange fascination, which all felt who came near her, but the higher faculties which she displayed in after-life had not yet been developed. These needed a wider stage and a loftier position for their display.

As she grew up it was seen that she possessed not a few of the good as well as the evil qualities of the race from which she was sprung. She had a princely heart, and a large understanding. To say that she was crafty, and astute, and greedy

of power, and prudent, patient, and plodding in her efforts to grasp it, is simply to say that she was a Medici. She possessed, in no small degree, the literary and aesthetic tastes of her illustrious ancestor, Cosmo I. She loved splendor as did her great-grandfather, Lorenzo the Magnificent. She was as prodigal and lavish in her habits as Leo X.; and withal, as great a lover of pleasure. She filled the Louvre with scandals, even as Leo had done the Vatican, and from the court diffused a taint through the city, from which Paris has not been cleansed to this day.

The penetration and business habits of her uncle — we style him so, but his birth being suspicious, it is impossible to define his exact relationship — Clement VII., she inherited, and the pleasures in which she so freely indulged do not appear to have dulled the one or interrupted the other.

Above all, she was noted for the truly Medician feature of an inordinate love of power. Whoever occupied the throne, Catherine was the real ruler of France. Most of the occurrences which made the reigns of her husband and sons so tragical, and blackened so dismally that era of history, had their birth in her scheming brain. Not that she loved blood for its own sake, as did some of the Roman Emperors, but her will must be done, and whatever cause or person stood in her way must take the consequences by the dungeon or the stake, by the poignard or the poison-cup.


Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 19th, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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