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From Queen Of France To Homeless Beggar: The Rise And Catastrophic Downfall Of Marie De Medici

France was a country torn apart by years of religious and civil wars when Marie de Medici married King Henri IV in 1600. It was one of the unhappiest royal marriages of all time. Desperate for power, she watched from behind the scenes for years while her husband tried to control a country that was intent on destroying itself from within - she watched, and waited for her moment to strike. After 10 years of marriage, she was finally crowned Queen of France in her own right. The very next day her husband was conveniently murdered by a fanatical priest and Marie took control of the kingdom for herself.

She ruled France with an iron fist and made a lot of enemies in the process. Unlike other queens, however, Marie was not a royal by birth and her position was precarious. The dowager queen went to war against her own son to hold on to power, and at times she believed she won the day, but her attempts were doomed to fail.

Marie's story is one of epic rises, and her cultural legacy endures into the 21st century. However, her fall from power was so absolute, she ended her days a poor beggar woman dependent on the generosity of the painter Peter Paul Rubens, exiled forever by her own son.

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  • The King Of France Was Desperate For Heirs And Marie Was Fertile And Wealthy
    Photo: Peter Paul Rubens / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The King Of France Was Desperate For Heirs And Marie Was Fertile And Wealthy

    After Henri IV of France's first marriage to Marguerite de Valois (also a Medici through her mother), was annulled in 1599, he married Marie de Medici in an elaborate ceremony held in Florence. As king, Henri couldn't leave his kingdom, and Marie couldn't leave Florence without becoming a married woman, so he didn't actually attend the ceremony and the marriage was carried out by proxy. 

    The marriage was a last minute alternative for Henri; he had originally intended to marry his mistress of many years, Gabrielle d’Estreés, and the two were supposed to be wed on Easter day in 1599. However, Henri's hoped were dashed when d'Estreés, five months pregnant at the time, suddenly took ill and died giving birth to a stillborn baby boy. As Henri had no heir from his first wife, he needed a woman whom could give him sons, and Marie's family had a reputation on both sides of her family for being exceptionally fertile. The huge dowry of 600,000 crowns she brought with her didn't hurt either.

  • Marie's Children Became The Next Generation Of European Royal Powers
    Photo: Peter Paul Rubens / WikImedia Commons / Public Domain

    Marie's Children Became The Next Generation Of European Royal Powers

    Marie quickly went about fulfilling her duties as a royal broodmare; she gave birth to the long-awaited heir to the throne, the future Louis XIII, in 1601. Louis was a sickly child with a number of ailments, both mental and physical, which worried the doctors. Many feared he would not live to sit upon the throne, but Marie made certain to provide both an heir and a spare.

    Over the course of nearly a decade, she produced six children, five of whom survived to adulthood - an impressive ratio for the time regardless of social rank and wealth. Her eldest daughter became Queen of Spain, her second the Duchess of Savoy, and the youngest, Henrietta Maria, married Charles I and became Queen of England. Meanwhile, her other son Gaston (who was also clearly her favorite) spent the rest of his life lurking around the French court enjoying his royal privileges. He didn't spend this time idly, however; more than once he fomented rebellion against his brother with ill-advised attempts at seizing the throne. 

  • Marie Resented Her Husband's Numerous Affairs And He Hated Her Italian Friends

    Despite producing several children together, Henri and Marie had a tumultuous marriage. Henri was known for keeping a bawdy court, and his wife's existence didn't change that; he continued to take mistresses and sleep with other women as though nothing had happened. He had his favorites, like Gabrielle d'Estreés, but after she died, he made Henriette d’Entragues his official mistress. Marie, understandably, mistrusted and resented any and all women in her husband's proximity, but it was hard for her to escape their existence. Many of his mistresses produced children who were raised at the royal court alongside Henri and Marie's legitimate children.

    On the flipside, Henri took issue with Marie's Italian entourage, notably Concino Concini, an adventurer with a knack for annoying the French, and his wife Leonora Galigai, one of Marie's childhood friends. Marie was extremely generous with money and favors with her Italian friends, breeding mistrust and jealousy at the royal court. The fact that Galigai was accused of witchcraft didn't help matters.

  • Marie Seized Power When Her Husband Was Conveniently Assassinated
    Photo: Peter Paul Rubens / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Marie Seized Power When Her Husband Was Conveniently Assassinated

    During his life Henri tried to find a balance between the warring religious factions, which in turn made him all the more hated by fanatics: he survived over 20 assassination attempts but was finally struck down by a zealous Catholic on May 14, 1610. Stabbed twice, he died immediately and his young son, Louis, became king. Since Louis was too young to rule, Marie became regent and ruled on his behalf. 

    This transfer of royal authority didn't happen smoothly - Marie's rise to power was in fact quite suspicious. The day before Henri's assassination, Marie was finally crowned Queen of France after nearly 10 years of marriage. The ceremony was a highly symbolic religious affair that cemented Marie as Queen of France before God and kingdom; it would have been very difficult for her to attempt to rule without this important event taking place. It seemed a little too coincidental that she was confirmed in her role only 24 hours before her husband's death paved they way for her to seize power.

  • Louis Overthrew His Mother's Regime And Murdered Her Favorites
    Photo: Frans Pourbus the Younger / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Louis Overthrew His Mother's Regime And Murdered Her Favorites

    Marie was supposed to serve as Queen Regent only until Louis came of age at 13, but she held onto power far longer than she was supposed to by continually demeaning her son in public and refusing to allow him any part in politics. During her rule, Marie continued to show favor to her Italian associates, Concino Concini and Leonore Galigai. Concini was elevated to the position of Marquis d'Ancre and became her closest advisor. With his help Marie reversed years of anti-Spanish foreign policy - she was a Habsburg on her mother's side - and established an alliance with the imperial family, going so far as to cement the peace with a marriage between her son and the Spanish Infanta, Anne of Austria.

    Marie also took on Armand-Jean du Plessis de Richelieu as an advisor and he worked with both the Queen regent and Concini. During all of this, Marie emptied the royal treasury with her lavish lifestyle, readily gave up royal power to the nobles when she was even slightly intimidated, and fomented general instability both at the court and in France at large. Marie's popularity plummeted day by day.

    Even Marie's son, Louis, didn't like his mother's behavior. He knew his rightful place was on the throne, leading the kingdom. He watched from the sidelines, biding his time for the right moment to strike. Finally, in the early hours of April 24, 1617, Louis XIII and his close friend, Charles de Luynes, initiated a palace coup. Concini was assassinated, his wife beheaded for witchcraft and her remains burned, and Marie was placed under house arrest before being exiled to the Chateau de Blois.

  • She Made A Daring Escape Under The Cover Of Night
    Photo: Peter Paul Rubens / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    She Made A Daring Escape Under The Cover Of Night

    Marie wasn't the kind to sit idly by and watch as the kingdom she ran for years was wrenched away from her. At the Chateau de Blois she plotted her return to power with the help of the few nobles who remained loyal to her. After two years of waiting she made her escape from Blois on the night of February 21 or 22, 1619. With the help of a group of soldiers and her maids, the queen was lowered down onto a ladder by rope from a high tower, then proceeded to climb down - that is, until she got stuck. 

    Paralyzed with fear, Marie couldn't move and the soldiers were forced to carry her down from the ladder. When they finally got her to the ground, she was mistaken by a group of passing guards for a prostitute, and Marie had the good humor to find it amusing when they inquired how much an evening with her would cost.

    The escape was almost a complete failure; when they had gotten a number of miles away from the chateau, Marie realized she had left behind a casket of jewels she intended to sell to finance the necessary armies to wage war against her son. Without them, her fight would be over before it had begun. She ordered the carriage to turn around and miraculously the jewel case was still sitting in the grass where she'd forgotten it.