When Catherine de’ Medici met Francis Walsingham

As of September of 1572, Sir Francis Walsingham had served for two years as Queen Elizabeth I’s ambassador in France, and was well-versed in the country’s court politics. But the year 1572 had changed everything. It was a dangerous one for France, and for Walsingham too: August had witnessed carnage and slaughter on the streets of Paris (not far from the English ambassador’s house) known today as St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. 

The massacre saw approximately 3,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) dead; many more would die as violence erupted in the provinces. At least two Englishmen were hacked to death at the city’s gates. Traumatized by the violence, but chiefly concerned with what his mistress – Elizabeth’s – reaction to the news would be, Walsingham wrote a letter from Paris to Sir Thomas Smith, the Queen’s Secretary of State, chronicling the day’s butchery.

The first page draft of Walsingham’s letter (Image credit: British Library)

Dated 2 September 1572, a surviving draft of Walsingham’s letter is a testament to his anger and mounting frustration. The ambassador’s usually refined hand appears scrawled, littered with crossing-outs and later insertions, flavouring the text with a rare taste of Walsingham’s own personal views. The letter also includes a fascinating report of Walsingham’s audiences with the Queen Mother, Catherine de’ Medici, and her son, the reigning King of France, Charles IX.

A Protestant himself, Walsingham had been appalled and disgusted by the state-sanctioned murders of the Huguenots. Summoned to meet with Charles and Catherine just forty-eight hours after the carnage had subsided, it was a meeting that would seriously test his skills as Elizabeth’s own 007 – a steely, crafty, poker-faced agent, recruited to betray as little emotion as possible.

Depiction of Sir Francis Walsingham as principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I

Not wanting to trigger a diplomatic crisis with England, Walsingham was escorted to meet Catherine and Charles at the Louvre by the King’s brother, Henri, Duke of Anjou, who had been given express instructions to keep the ambassador safe as they rode through the still unsettled streets, the miasma of St. Bartholomew’s continuing to smoulder. 

Upon arrival, Walsingham was conducted to the King and Queen Mother’s private rooms, accompanied by a dozen or so gentlemen-at-arms. He appeared to listen intently as Charles droned through a well-rehearsed speech, reasserted his stance that the murdered Admiral, Gaspard de Coligny, had been involved in a conspiracy that the French crown had deemed imperative to obliterate, ‘without awaiting the formality of legal proceedings’.

The King, Walsingham wrote, declared that he had been ‘constrayned to his great greafe to doe that w[hi]ch he dyd for his [safety’s] sake’. His mother was inclined to agree.

But the massacre had proven to be a touch more complex than the King had presented it. In the early morning of the 24th, Charles and his Council had preemptively ordered the deaths of 70 Huguenot aristocrats, all under suspicion of being involved in plots against the State. These so-called ‘death squads’ then triggered a broader massacre; Catholic militants attacked their Huguenot neighbours, and violence and bloodshed seeped throughout the city. By day’s end, a violent Catholic mob had slain thousands of men, women, and children. Witnesses of the carnage wrote that Seine ran red with the blood of Parisian Protestants.

King Charles IX of France after François Clouet

But, in the eyes of the French royal family, dangerous Huguenot plots had forced them to act decisively. Coligny, the leader of the French Calvinist Huguenots, had been found guilty, and Charles was willing to provide Walsingham with a copy of the judicial examination that would prove it. Walsingham conceded that Queen Elizabeth ‘woolde be glad to vnderstande the grow[n]d of the matter’ before he raised the apparently dicey topic of the Englishmen that had been murdered in the riots. To this, Charles promised he would make ‘exemplary justice’ of the perpetrators behind their deaths, provided that the ambassador could produce a list of offenders.

Walsingham evenly responded that it would be difficult to identify the killers because the ‘disorder’ had been so widespread, ‘the swoorde being commytted to the common people’. This surprisingly blunt remark brought Charles and Wlsingham to an effective standstill; Walsingham uttered nothing more about his brethren that had been hacked to death in the ‘late accident’, and moved on to his next point of business with the King. Yet a surviving draft of one passage reveals Walsingham’s true anger: ‘I made him understand,’ the ambassador insists, that English subjects had been killed and others plundered during the massacre.

But Walsingham, like many others at the French court and abroad, knew that the real power behind the throne was not the King. It was his mother, Catherine de’ Medici. Orphaned practically at birth, Catherine had patiently endured her time as the long-suffering wife of King Henry II of France, ensured the ascension of two of her sons to the French throne and, while reigning as Charles’ regent, had successfully established herself as one of the most formidable women in Europe.

Catherine de’ Medici as Queen consort of France

No stranger to the Queen Mother’s authority, on the night of August 26th, Walsingham had written a letter to Catherine expressing gratitude for his safety and that of his fellow Englishmen in ‘this last tumult’. However, the ambassador went on to say that he’d received various conflicting reports of unrest in Paris and requested to know the truth so that he could ‘accordingly advertise the Queen’s Majesty my Mistress,’ Elizabeth.

In response, Catherine assured Walsingham that the French ambassador in London had already furnished Elizabeth with a report of the ‘late accident’. Of course, the French ambassador’s report that the murder of Coligny and his men had been against the King’s wishes contradicted coolly with the seamy reports Walsingham had received in Paris.

Catherine’s response gave all Walsingham needed to know about her stance on the matter; their diplomatic duel had begun.

Now, standing in the Queen Mother’s presence, Catherine’s piercing eyes assessing his every movement, Walsingham knew that his mistress had met her match: this was not a woman prone to, or content to, stand down.

And he was about to learn this on a personal level. After their initial audience, the Queen Mother called upon the English ambassador for two more meetings. During the first occasion, Walsingham did little to conceal his determination. He began by airing his grievances over the Crown’s violation of the pact to allow French Protestants the freedom to worship, and the ‘severity used against those of the Religion’. Seizing the opportunity to speak freely with Catherine, Walsingham carried on. He voiced concerns over the ‘strange dealings’ of the French in the proposed marriage negotiations between Elizabeth and Catherine’s son. And, finally, he expressed reservations over ‘certain discourses’ circulating throughout the court that the French Crown hoped to claim England and Ireland.

Unaccustomed to such astonishingly blunt accusations, Catherine remained cool and equable, hardly swayed by Walsingham’s tactics. She disregarded his other points and dove into the crux of the issue – the massacre – by reaffirming her stance that the Crown’s reaction had been appropriately swift, based on the intelligence they’d received and in consideration of the various ‘conspiracies’ mounting against the King.

The second page of Walsingham’s draft letter

The treaty, she said, had been agreed upon between England and France: not England and the Admiral, who could not be protected under its terms. True, Walsingham agreed, but ‘the chiefest causes that moved [Elizabeth] to make [peace with France] was that the King suffered [Protestants] to enjoy, by virtue of this Edict, exercise of the same Religion her Majesty professed.’ The promise had been broken, but that was not all that bothered the ambassador. ‘Surely, Madam,’ Walsingham continued, ‘I fear this late severity executed herein will make all the princes of the Religion to repute the same a general denunciation of war against them, which I fear will prove as bloody as ever war that happened,’ and which would provide ammunition to the growing powers of the ‘Turk’. 

Unfazed, Catherine retorted that the English might have been duped to think of the Admiral as a Protestant brother across the channel. She presented a letter discovered in the Admiral’s will, wherein Coligny advised the French King to adopt a policy of mistrust towards the Queen of England in order to safeguard the French Crown. Walsingham’s shrewd gaze pored over this incendiary document for several moments before eventually concluding that the Admiral had been nothing more than a devoted, loyal servant to his King – qualities that his mistress, Elizabeth, held in high regard.

With that matter settled – for now – Walsingham continued to press Catherine about the decision to forsake the edict’s allowance of religious freedom for the Huguenots. Catherine assured him that Huguenot subjects would ‘enjoy the liberty of their conscience,’ but that Charles, her son, would ultimately ‘have exercise of but one religion’ in this country. Perplexed by this apparent contradiction, Walsingham asked the Queen Mother how France would continue to observe the edict, if the King did not allow Huguenots to worship freely.

Catherine tartly retorted that the Crown would have to reconsider the edict, having ‘discovered certain matters of late’. 

To which Walsingham asked: ‘will you then have [Huguenots] live without exercise of religion?’

Catherine’s response was sharp and swift, ‘as your mistress suffereth the Catholics of England’. 

But it was Walsingham who delivered the final blow: ‘my mistress never did promise them anything by edict; if she had she would not fail to have performed it’. 

Elizabeth I of England in Saxton’s Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales

A week and a half later, Walsingham found himself in Catherine’s company for what was to be his third and final audience regarding this disturbing affair. Back in England, Elizabeth had received a comprehensive account of the massacres and sought an explanation from the French king as to why, even if the allegations against Coligny held truth, it was deemed necessary to act outside of the law and execute him ‘in cold blood’. Parroting the English Queen’s horrified sentiments, Walsingham frankly informed Catherine: ‘the manner of the cruelty used [against the Admiral] cannot be allowable in any Kingdom’.

The ambassador also took the liberty to tell Catherine that Elizabeth was prepared to order his immediate return, should his life be in any danger.

Yet, Catherine, resolute, had not strayed from her course, nor was she about to. She firmly responded that the customary legal procedures wouldn’t have sufficed for a treasonous scheme set to unfold within a matter of hours. With Huguenot commanders amassing power and rallying troops against the King, the time to strike was while iron was hot. And act they did.

Following this explanation, the French King informed Walsingham that if he were to allow the ambassador’s return to English soil, he would be required to recall his own ambassador in London. The threat was equivalent to a declaration of war, a fact of which all three present were uncomfortably aware. Softening his tone slightly, the King promised to ensure Walsingham’s safety during his stay in France, though he would not, could not, issue him the necessary documents to leave. 

No closer to resolving the issue than they’d been weeks earlier, the three bade farewell. In parting, the Queen Mother assured the ambassador of her love and friendship toward the Queen of England. Walsingham, however, understood the stalemate was far from over. Elizabeth’s course of pursuing compromise and middle-grounds would fail to keep her enemies at bay.

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