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Murders, Mistresses and Musketeers

Report of the lecture given by
Fenella Billington
on November 24th 2010

Our guest Mrs Fenella Billington MA, Lecturer in the History of Art at Liverpool University and an Honorary Woman of the Spinners Company London was warmly welcomed on her second visit to Cranleigh DFAS. This lecture was a sequel to her previous talk on Francis I of France. It covered the following hundred years from 1547 - 1643 until the accession of Louis XIV.

Mrs Billington's lecture began in Florence with the birth of Catherine de' Medici who eventually played such an important part in the history of the French Court. Catherine was born in 1519 to an Italian father Lorenzo II de' Medici and a French mother. Sadly both parents died within weeks of her birth and she was brought up by relatives spending much of her time in convents. Catherine was embroiled in the trouble between the Medici family and the Florentinians. Eventually on the intervention of her Uncle (Cardinal Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici) now Pope Clement VII, she managed to go to Rome. The Pope then arranged her marriage to Henry the second son of Francis I of France for a huge dowry; Catherine was 14 years old.

Henry and his elder brother had been sent to Spain when they were 4 and 6 years old as hostages in exchange for the return of their father (captured in Madrid) to France. Henry returned to France an unhappy and unruly boy aged 10; his father appointed Diane de Poitiers to care for him, Diane was then19. Henry adored her for the rest of his life and she later became his mistress.

In 1533 Henry's elder brother Francis contracted a fever and died. Henry now became heir.

At last in 1544 after ten years of childless marriage Catherine gave birth to a son whom they named Francis. He was followed by nine other siblings in quick succession all of whom were weak and sickly.

Henry became king on the death of Francis 1st in1547, Catherine becoming Queen Consort. Henry's affair with Diane de Poitiers continued for the remainder of his life he became more and more besotted by her showering her with gifts and jewellery finally giving her the Chateau De Chenonceau.

Twelve years later Henry died an agonising death ten days after being pierced through the eye by a wooden splinter during a Jousting match. Their 15 year old son Francis became king. The previous year he had married the young Mary Queen of Scots. Catherine became the mainstay of the family supporting the sickly young king and immediately banished Diane de Poitiers from the court .Diane died 7 years later at her home the Chateau of Anet aged 66. Francis 2nd constantly ill only reigned for 16 months before dying where upon Mary returned to Scotland.

The next brother Charles who was only 10 became king in 1566. Catherine now became Governor of France whilst he was a minor. Two days after the wedding of Catherine's daughter Margaret to Henry of Navarre in Paris hundreds of Huguenots were murdered -The massacre of St Bartholomew plunging the country into civil war

King Charles died aged 23 being succeeded by his brother Henry of Poland, who returned to France to claim the throne. Henry was older and more independent than his brothers holding the country together during these turbulent years. However in 1588 Henry ordered the murder of the Duke de Guise by luring him to his bedchamber whereupon the Duke was set upon by Henry's men and killed. This was followed two days later by the murder of the Dukes brother the Cardinal of Guise. Catherine was devastated when she learned of the involvement of her son Henry and died two weeks later aged 69. Henry was then himself murdered by a Dominican friar who stabbed Henry in the stomach thus ending the Valois dynasty.

Henry of Navarre (a Huguenot) the husband of Catherine's daughter Margaret became the next king. He was known as a good king, being just and clever. He settled the Religious wars by becoming a catholic and signing The Edict of Nantes giving people more religious freedom. Henry had his marriage to Margaret annulled and later married an Italian Marie de Medici. Six children were born before Henry was also murdered in1610 by a catholic fanatic.

Thus his small son aged 9 became king. Marie the mother acted as regent dominating her son. Marie held onto power as long as she could, appointing poor advisers so undoing much of the good work of her husband. Louis married Anne of Austria 1615 (a character in the novel by Dumas-The Three Musketeers). In reality the musketeers were the king's bodyguard. Louis eventually assumed full power and banished his mother who fled to Brussels never returning. Their son Louis XIV was born after 20 years of marriage and became king when only 5 he reigned for many years and one hopes is the subject of another lecture.

Mrs Billington brought the lecture to life with her many beautiful slides of drawings, portraits and scenes together with her extensive knowledge of this most turbulent period of French history. After answering numerous questions she was thanked by John Baker.

Hazel Vine

Fenella Billington has a Master's Degree in Art History from Manchester University. As a Liverywoman of the Worshipful Company of Skinners in London, she took the history of the Company and its art treasures as the subject for her Master's thesis. She is a tour guide and freelance speaker for The Art Fund and the National Trust, and a specialist in the Renaissance period with a particular interest in the French Monarchy at this time.