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.
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 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.
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.
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.