The sickly King Charles IX of France (1550-1574) was a mentally unstable sadist with mad rages. As he grew up, he became so violent that courtiers genuinely feared for their lives. Once, he savagely attacked his sister with his fists. During the festivities of her marriage Charles gave the order to murder thousands of protestants in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Still, Charles was a mother’s boy, who even after attaining his majority, continued to refer major decisions to his dominant mother.
Charles IX (to the right) was born on June 27, 1550 as Charles Maximilien,
a younger son of Henry II of France (1519-1559) and Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589). Immediately after Charles’ birth, his father rushed back to his elder mistress,
Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566)1, who lived at Anet.
Charles and his siblings often travelled by barge from Saint-Germain to Anet. The castle's grounds contained a little zoo with wolves, wild boar, lion cubs, a bear and animals from Africa. There were also horses, dogs and caged birds to play with. In addition, passing troupes of travelling actors and acrobats were hired to entertain the children. Catherine regularly ordered pictures of her children
The younger children were brought up with companions of their own age at the castle of Amboise with its walled garden. They were usually moved away from any chance of infection during the summer months, when outbreaks of plague were common. In May 1551 the milk of Charles' wet-nurse was supposedly not good, because "the milk made the baby emotional". Another wet-nurse was sought.
Anne de Montmorency (1493-1567) was, as Grand Master of the Household, officially responsible for the royal children. Cardinal Charles of Lorraine (1524-1574) supervised the children’s bible studies. Catherine herself was also involved with the children's education, upbringing and health, and had them tought to paint, sketch, write verse and carve wood. Charles seems to have had a genuine artistic talent. He was also thought Italian, Latin, Greek and history. He took no pleasure in studying, but did it to please his mother.
On June 22, 1559, Charles’ lovely elder sister, Elisabeth (1546-1568), was married by proxy to the austere and pedantic King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)3. In the following festivities, a tournament was held on Friday June 30. King Henry II, always proud of his physical prowess, jousted in his armour of black and silver, the colours of his mistress. His opponent’s lance broke and hit the King’s face, driving splinters into his temple and eye. Afterwards, Henry’s body became swollen with infection, impairing his sight and speech. He died on July 10, 1559. His widow was prostrate with grief. For the first 2 days, Catherine remained on the floor of the death-chamber, sobbing uncontrollably. Gradually, she mastered herself. She was to wear mourning for the rest of her life, and
The new King was Charles’ brother, Francis II (1544-1560), who had recently been married to Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587)4. Two of Mary’s maternal uncles5, the Cardinal of Lorraine and Duke Francis “Scar Face” of Guise (1519-1563)6, became the actual rulers of the country.
At that time Paris and the northeast of France were staunchly Catholic, but in the south the protestants, called huguenots, wanted freedom of worship. The Guise regents, however, encouraged their persecution, introducing the death penalty for heresy in November 1559. Fearing death, some Protestant nobles wanted to kidnap Francis II to remove him from the Guise’s influence, but the plot was discovered. On March 15, 1560, 9-year-old Charles and his mother, elder brother and sister-in-law witnessed the executions of 57 conspirators. Each time a condemned man mounted the steps to the scaffold, his remaining comrades sang a Psalm, and so it continued throughout the day. Some bodies were hung from the balconies of the castle of Amboise and for several days afterwards
Francis II had been suffering from tuberculosis for years. On November 17, he became seriously ill. An abscess in his ear was giving more trouble than usual and his headaches became excruciating, when a lump formed behind his ear. At midnight of December 6, Francis II died. He was not quite 17 years old.
Charles became the new King at the age of 10. He was crowned as Charles IX in Reims on May 15, 1561. His mother, Catherine de' Medici, obtained the regency. She presided over the council, initiated and controlled state business, directed domestic and foreign policy, and made appointments to offices. She was the first to receive and open dispatches before the King signed them. Catherine insisted on sleeping in her son’s room. She surrounded Charles with servants and tutors she could rely on to make their reports to her.
She even went hunting with her son, riding hard and with courage.
As a child Charles is described as having "a narrow, rat-like little face and a sly expression". Charles had a disfiguring birthmark between his nose and upper lip, giving him the nickname “The Snotty King”. Later, he grew a moustache to cover it. The Venetian ambassador wrote that Charles had "fine eyes like his father’s". Despite a weak constitution, Charles loved physical exercise, like a game of royal tennis. After the least exertion, however, he had to rest for a long time. Charles was essentially a kind and generous boy, who wrote charming poetry, but he also had a curious, unstable nature. Occasionally, he fell prey to ungovernable outbursts of temper. He became excited by the sight of blood during a hunt. His frenetic dedication to hunting was obsessive,
In the southwest of France monks were being killed and churches pillaged in the autumn of 1561. In March 1562, Francis “Scar Face” of Guise stumbled on some protestants worshipping in a barn and began shooting. The protestants took this massacre as a declaration of war and one of their leaders, admiral Gaspard de Coligny (1519-1572), managed to acquire English troops and subsidies. Francis “Scar Face” and Anne de Montmorency9 responded to this Protestant threat by taking the King and Queen-mother prisoner, declaring that "if the King thought of changing his religion, they would not hesitate to change their King". Charles, sobbing bitterly, was lifted into a litter, while Catherine, trying to maintain her composure, was put into another. They were taken to Paris.
In Feburary 1563, Francis “Scar Face” was killed by a shot in the back as he laid siege to Orléans. From then onwards, Catherine de’ Medici tried to settle the civil war by compromise, but again and again new hostilities broke out between the rivalling parties. This continuing turmoil, pillage and economic instability was ruining France.
Catherine de’ Medici (to the right) had Charles, at the age of 13½, declare his majority before the Parliament of Rouen on August 17, 1563. The next day, to show that he was God’s anointed, he touched for “King’s Evil” and supposedly “healed many sick persons”. Henceforth, Charles IX assumed official responsibility for his mother’s acts, continuing to refer all decisions to her. The Queen Mother, knowing how entirely she possessed her son, did not care for his opinions, certain as she was that she could change them in an instant.
One day, while Catherine was giving an audience to the papal nuncio, Charles and a group of friends, dressed up as Cardinals, bishops and abbots, and burst into the Queen Mother’s chamber, riding a donkey. Catherine had a good laugh, but the dismayed nuncio reported everything back to Rome.
The Queen Mother decided to go on a two-year’s progress through the country with the King and the Court.
The tour started with a magnificent festival at Fontainebleau, where Charles staged a masked tournament followed by jousts. The royal progress set off in March 1564. After a few days, Charles came across a pig with a litter of newborn piglets. When he picked one up to caress it, the pig attacked him. Charles, enfuriated, brutally killed the pig. During their stay at Troyes, Charles, as annointed King, touched the feet of some scrofulous. In Bar-le-Duc he stood godfather at the baptism of the son of
his sister Claude (1547-1575)10 and her husband, Duke Charles of Lorraine (1543-1608). The royal party left Lyons in haste after a sudden outbreak of plague. At Marseille, the young King and his courtiers took part in a mock naval battle. The following winter was intensely cold, and at Carcassonne Charles had a lot of fun in a snow fight.
In the summer of 1565, near the Spanish border, they met with Catherine’s favourite daughter, Elisabeth, third wife of Philip II of Spain11. Catherine inspired fear in all her children and even Elisabeth once confessed that, whenever she got a letter from her mother, she trembled before opening it. Catherine also had some interviews with the hardliner Duke of Alba, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo. The meeting was seen by the huguenots as a ploy to acquire Spanish troops to destroy them12. In May 1567, Alba marched with an army from Genoa through Savoy and then along the eastern frontier of France. Again, the huguenots feared a Spanish invasion to destroy them, and soon decided on some pre-emptive strikes, resulting in a battle against an army led by Montmorency, who was fatally wounded13. Meanwhile, Alba had arrived in The Netherlands and tried to stamp out Protestantism there, starting the Eighty Years War.
The Venetian ambassador described Catherine de’ Medici at the age of 51: "No step, however unimportant, is taken without her. Scarcely has she time to eat or drink or sleep, so great are her harassing cares. She runs here and there between the armies, doing a man’s work, without a thought of sparing herself. Yet, she is loved by no one in the land."
As her sons were growing up, Catherine’s difficulties in managing them increased. To the Spanish ambassador she confessed: "I no longer have the same authority as I did. My sons are men now and I do not have the controlling hand in affairs, which I once had." She had Charles’ younger brother, Henry of Anjou, appointed as lieutenant general of the Realm after Montmorency’s death. Hitherto petted by his mother, Anjou got a change to prove himself, when, in 1569, German mercenaries defiled catholic churches, burning the bones of the Saintly King Louis IX and the heart of King Francis I. At the Battle of Montconcour on October 3, 18-year-old Anjou defeated the Huguenot forces. The King was jealous of his younger brother’s brilliant success
Anjou supported the Catholic cause, but as the Huguenot admiral Coligny returned to Court, Charles gradually turned more and more to him as his guide and friend, and even started calling him “father”. Coligny was soon dominating the Royal Council and urging for war on Spain to give aid to the Dutch protestants, because he knew Charles was longing to outshine his brother’s military glory. Charles insisted on joining the army, and the court settled for a while near the front line, until a new treaty was negotiated in August 1570.
As he grew up, Charles IX (to the right) became tall and physically strong, but his physical and mental problems increased with his age. His body was supported by over-long, spindly legs, and he could not walk altogether straight. His muscular arms hung from bowed shoulders. His body grew weaker with each debilitating crisis. Charles was far more emotional than reasonable and he was mentally unbalanced to the point of insanity; he was prone to insane, murderous anger. At any moment Charles could burst into sudden fits of such maniacal rage that even the Queen Mother feared him. Only Margot (1553-1616), his youngest sister, knew how to calm Charles’ tantrums.
Charles’ excessive passion for the chase was, in part, an attempt to exorcise murderous fantasies. He preferred to use the knife, because he liked blood, and insisted on seeing the spurting blood of the stag. However, mere hunting and field-sports did not satisfy his blood lust. Charles had murderous bouts in which he amused himself by torturing and dismembering domestic animals. He also liked lashing people till they bled. When hunting was impossible, he would turn blacksmith and would beat out weapons for his armoury until he was prostrate with exhaustion.
Like his elder brother Francis, Charles became tubercular. In the summer of 1568, he was fever-racked and grew progressively waker. He was reaching the later stages of tuberculosis. By mid-august Charles had made a slow recovery, although still looking frail and thin. Soon, Charles fell ill again, suffering from high fevers. He was routinely bled, causing an infection in his arm, whereupon a huge abcess developed. Again, he recovered sufficiently to resume his tasks.
Early 1569, Charles IX fell in love with warm, simple and honest Marie Touchet (to the right). His mother encouraged the affair, because Marie was the one person at Court who cared for Charles for himself. Marie provided the neurotic King with some peace and understanding. When he stole away from the Louvre to her little house, Charles went, so he said, "from Purgatory to Paradise".
On November 26, 1570, Charles married Elizabeth of Austria (1554-1592)15, a small, pretty, gentle and pious girl of 16. After the consummation of his marriage, Charles boasted it resembled a "German corset bloodied by a pistol shot". Soon, Charles loved both his wife and his mistress. His mistress was also kind to his wife, respecting her piety and approving of her habit to spend most of the night in prayer. Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Marie-Elisabeth (1572-1578), who died young. Marie gave Charles an illegitimate son, Charles de Valois (1573-1650)16.
Around 1570, Charles’ sister Margot was in love with Henry de Guise (1550-1588) and they exchanged notes and letters through a lady-in-waiting. One night, the couple was discovered in an unused bedroom in a far corridor of the Louvre. Guise escaped by the window, but the encounter was reported to the King, who, hearing of it, rolled on the floor, tearing his hair, screaming blasphemies and vowing to kill Guise for his presumption. When his fit had spent itself, Charles burst into his mother’s room at 5 o’clock in the morning, still wearing only his nightgown. He demanded that his sister be sent for immediately. When Margot entered the room, Charles savagely attacked her with his fists and the poor Princess fell to the floor and fainted. His rage exhausted, Charles flung out off the room, leaving his mother to repair the damage he had done. For an hour, Catherine dressed Margot’s wounds, restored her dress and rearranged her hair
The tension between Margot (to the right) and her mother and brother increased when she was told she had to marry her relative Henry of Bourbon (1553-1610), King of Navarre. Margot and Henry had known each other during their growing-up and they didn’t get along. Margot took at least one bath a day, while Henry had even an aversion to one bath a year, and always stank of garlic. For hours Margot lay crying, stretched on a wooded coffer, while her mother alternately stormed and coaxed. Margot remained silent for days.
Navarre was a protestant and the marriage was intended to unite the protestant and catholic factions. To attend the wedding huguenots and catholics invaded the capital, itself a hotbed of catholic fanatics. The marriage took place on August 18, 1572, a stifling hot day, and was performed in the open air. Margot was elaborately dressed, but, when the Cardinal put her the question of her consent to have Navarre for her husband, she did not reply. Spectators saw Guise gaze at her intently. As she returned his look and still said nothing, her brother the King stepped forward, and angrily pushed her head down in token of consent.
Henry of Anjou claimed that, in the days after the wedding, Charles IX was "strangely moody and impatient, harsh in his manner and more so in his replies". Catherine and Anjou became convinced that Coligny had set up the King against them and they decided to get rid of him17. They confided in the widow of the murdered Francis “Scar Face”, who blamed Coligny for her husband’s death, and a gunman was hired18. On August 22, Coligny was shot, but as he accidentally bent down, he was only wounded in the arm. Charles sent his own surgeon to the admiral. Later, he went to Coligny’s bedside and embraced him with genuine emotion, still calling hem “mon père”. Soon, armed bands of huguenots were parading through the city, demanding justice.
The next day, Catherine and Anjou spent 2 hours urging their case on 22-year-old Charles, trying to convince him of a Huguenot plot “with his life and throne at stake”. At last Catherine succeeded in averting Charles’ vengeance on her by turning his wrath to the huguenots. As a result of the emotional strain of Catherine’s insistence, Charles got a fit of maniacal rage. His voice broke into a hysterical scream and a thin foam of blood appeared on his lips as he gave his authorisation: "Kill the admiral if you wish; but you must kill all the huguenots, so that not one is left alive to reproach me. Kill the lot! Kill the lot! Kill the lot!"
With this licence to kill, the catholics slaughtered more than 7000 huguenots on August 24, 1572, St. Bartholomew’s Day. As the killings were taking place, Charles joined in, taking shots at his fleeing Huguenot subjects from one of the Palace windows. Coligny was stabbed to death and his body was tossed out onto the street. Henry of Navarre owned his life to his temporary conversion to the Catholic faith19. In the following weeks, the massacres spread to the southern provinces.
Gradually, Charles IX became maddened by his infirmities both in body and mind. His rages became so violent that courtiers genuinely feared for their lives. Eventually, attacks of complete dementia would seize the King. By the end of 1573, his health was failing rapidly, although he lingered on for months. He was in extreme pain, but remained clear and coherent to the end. In his last days, he produced a constant bloody sweat. He was in great physical and mental agony. According to Huguenot propaganda, Charles “fancied in his delirium that he was surrounded by the blood of the huguenots he had ordered to be slain”. In his dying confession, however, Charles IX showed remorse for all his sins, but made no mention of St. Bartholomew’s Day. He finally succumbed to tuberculosis on May 30, 1574, dying quietly in his sleep. He was not quite 24 years old.
Copyright © 2008-2012 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
1 When Henry II was 12 years old, his father had entrusted his education to the widowed Diane de Poitiers. Although she was 20 years his senior, she later became Henry’s mistress and was to remain in his affection until his death.
2 In his youth Henry II had been a hostage in Spain, while Catherine had been an orphan.
3 From his first marriage with his cousin, Maria Manuela of Portugal (1527-1545), Philip II of Spain had a mad son, Don Carlos (1545-1568).
4 As a widow, Mary Queen of Scots married her cousin, Henry Stuart of Lennox (1545-1567) and gave birth to James I & VI of England and Scotland (1566-1625).
5 Mary Queen of Scots was a daughter of Mary of Guise (1515-1560) and James V of Scotland. The Guises were a younger branch of the family of the Dukes of Lorraine.
6 In battle a lance had pierced Francis’ cheek. His son Henry (1550-1588) later acquired a similar scar and nickname in the battle of Dormans.
7 Charles’ brother Henry of Anjou, later Henry III of France, was originally known as Edouard-Alexandre, but later he changed his name to Henry.
8 The sores, infections, and, fits of dementia may have been caused by congenital syphilis, although that’s not likely in this case.
9 To complicate things, Coligny was a nephew of Montmorency.
10 Claude was as misshapen as her namesake grandmother.
11 By order of Philip II protestants were excluded from the meeting.
12 News arrived from Florida in January 1566 of French protestants being massacred there by Spanish troops.
13 In March 1569, the protestant Duke Louis of Condé, a little hunchback with considerable military skill, who belonged to a distant branche of the French royal family, was taken prisoner and savagely murdered.
14 Haldane suggests that Catherine’s obsessive love for her son Henry was a result of her own sexual frustrations; in every other respect her coolly calculating mind successfully controlled her feelings, but that Catherine was secretly dominated by this passion.
15 Elizabeth of Austria was a sister of Maria Anna (1549-1580), the 4th wife and niece of Philip II of Spain. His 4th marriage gave Philip II his son Philip III, the grandfather of the inbred King Carlos II (1661-1700).
16 Charles de Valois was married in 1591 to Charlotte de Montmorency (†1636). Their granddaughter, Marie Franziska, married Louis de Guise 1622-1654), and had a son Louis Joseph (1650-1671), who married Elisabeth of France (1646-1696), a granddaughter of King Henry IV.
17 In May 1569 Coligny had already been poisoned, but he recovered. His younger brother, however, died of it.
18 Erlanger suggests that Catherine de’ Medici wanted the Guises to murder Coligny and then Coligny’s adherents to murder De Guise – thus eliminating the leaders of both parties.
19 In 1589, after the death of Henry of Anjou, Henry of Navarra was to become King Henry IV of France, again converting to the catholic faith. His marriage with Margot remained childless and Henry divorced her to marry Marie de' Medici.