I was carrying twins the last time I gave birth. It was my ninth pregnancy, and I nearly died. One of the twins would not leave my womb, and they had to first break her legs, then cut her into pieces in order to get her out of me.
My other girl lived for a few weeks more. She was my youngest daughter, and I called her Victoire. The King my husband never saw her; he was engaged in a war with the Spanish through their allies at the time. After her birth, I did not see her again, either, for Henry needed me to act as Regent in his absence. It had taken so many years until he trusted me enough for this.
“Would you not rather recover from your ordeal?” my husband’s mistress asked me. She had been present when I had given birth, as she had been every single time. I hated her more than ever as she told me there were no lack of candidates to take the regency: Montmorency, or the eternally ambitious Guise.
“I am the Queen,” I replied.
I was still bleeding when I rose to meet with the small council. They had to throw away my dress afterwards. I did not bleed again. My childbearing days were over.
“Your mother,” Philip told her, “has too much wit for a woman, and too little honesty for a queen. They say she lies even when she is telling the truth. I shall not meet her. You may proceed to Bayonne on your own, Madame.”
Elisabeth did not know whether she was distressed or glad about this. She had not seen her mother since her fifteenth year, when Elisabeth had married the King of Spain. There had been countless letters between them, true, but no encounter in person to evoke that strange mixture of guilt and pride, of affection and the urge to flee, that her mother had managed to produce in her from childhood onwards whenever they were in the same room together. Philip was too sharp an observer to miss this, and she did not wish him to think of her as anything but exemplary, both as a daughter and as a wife. Her husband was not a man in sympathy with contradictions.
And yet contradictions were what had formed Elisabeth’s relationship with her mother from the start. She was her mother’s oldest daughter, the second child which confirmed that the miraculous long awaited birth of her brother Francis the previous year had not been a fluke. “My child of hope,” she’d once heard Catherine call her. But it hadn’t been Catherine who had raised her, and for a while, Elisabeth had not realized Catherine was her mother at all. As her brother before her and all her brothers and sisters after her, Elisabeth had been given to her father’s mistress to raise, to the beautiful, incomparable Diane de Poitiers. It was Diane who chose the nurses and servants for the royal children, just as it was Diane whose colors the courtiers wore when they knew what was good for them, Diane to whom anyone who wanted anything presented their suit. Diane whose initials were in every single chateau the court resided in, united with those of Elisabeth’s father. H and D, Henry and Diane: the very flowers in every garden proclaimed the devotion Henry of France had for his mistress, the elegant, immaculate woman eighteen years older than him whose beauty remained untouched by time.
When Elisabeth first understood that her mother was not Diane but the short, dumpy woman with goggly eyes and a foreigner’s accent who stank of sweat and milk despite all the perfumes because she was hardly ever not pregnant during the first ten years of Elisabeth’s life, she cried out in protest as this woman kept trying to hug her.
Then the young Queen of Scots arrived at court, Mary Stuart, who was to be Elisabeth’s brother’s bride. She shared an age with Elisabeth, and, so Diane had decreed, was to share a nursery with her as well. Mary was pretty and cheerful, and fun to play with, but two things about her annoyed Elisabeth from the start. For one thing, Mary was taller than she was, and for that matter taller than Francis who was a year older. For another, Mary told her, in a firm voice sounding like a nurse: “Oh, you mustn’t leave the room before me. You must always walk behind me when we enter and leave.”
“I am the King’s daughter,” Elisabeth retorted indignantly, “and you haven’t even married his son yet.”
“But I am already a Queen,” Mary said, not unkindly, and patted Elisabeth’s arm, which made it worse. “And your father may be a King, but your mother is the daughter of Florentine shopkeepers. Everyone says so.”
If she’d been older, Elisabeth would have comforted herself with the fact that the latter was ridiculous; it had been at last a century since the Medici had been engaged in trade. But the gist of it was that Mary was her superior and that this was unfair and somehow Elisabeth’s mother’s fault, because being her daughter made Elisabeth inferior. Elisabeth was upset enough about this to do the unprecedented and seek out her mother’s rooms, after asking a servant to show her where these might be in the palace at Compegnie they were currently residing. Indeed, she was upset enough to tell her mother about her grievance.
“You are indeed Medici as well as Valois,” her mother said quietly. Accent or not, her voice was musical and one of the few things about her people at court agreed were beautiful, together with her long-fingered hands and the legs that could be discerned when she rode. “You are a descendant of Lorenzo Il Magnifico, who ruled Florence through his genius and who brought it a golden age while those Scottish barbarians didn’t even know how to bathe. You are the grandniece of two Popes. And you shall be Queen to the most powerful monarch of Europe. I will see it done.”
She was still dumpy and small. But the absolute certainty in her statement and the fierceness of her look had Elisabeth caught up in what her mother said, and for the first time, she didn’t notice anyone else.
Then she remembered how Diane had laughed when Elisabeth had asked to keep her own nursery and let Mary have a new one. And suddenly she felt not just grateful that her mother was taking her part, but ashamed, for she knew she had never taken her mother’s.
“Why would you do this for me?” she whispered.
“Because you are my daughter,” her mother said. “And all of my children will wear crowns. That’s what fate owes me. And trust me, Elisabeth, I am good at collecting my debts.”
At twenty years of age, and after more than five years as a Queen of Spain, Elisabeth understood that this promise given to her in her childhood had not been the only, or even the main reason for her marriage. The rivalry between France and Spain that had started when Spain had become a part of the Holy Roman Empire - and thus suddenly surrounded France - had been carried out for two generations now. Every now and then, it turned bloody, and usually to France’s disadvantage. Elisabeth’s father had spent part of his childhood in Spain as a hostage because of this. It had made sense to try and end this enmity through a marriage.
But Elisabeth also knew that Mary was back in Scotland and Diane had ended in obscurity somewhere in the provinces, while Catherine currently ruled France for the second son she’d seen crowned.
Relationships between France and Spain were tense all over again right now, which was, no doubt, one of the reasons why her mother had been pushing for a personal meeting with Elisabeth and Philip. There were many of her mother’s actions to which her husband took offense. He disliked that she kept receiving and sending emissaries to the Sultan in Turkey. The alliance between the French and the Sultan which Elisabeth’s grandfather had started was a long term scandal in Christendom, for was not France supposed to be the First Daughter of the Church? Philip, great grandson of the most Catholic monarchs who had driven the Moors out of Spain, felt this keenly. Then there was the report that her mother had organized a French expedition to the Spanish territory in the New World they called Florida, which Philip saw as unwelcome meddling at best, and downright thievery if the French should succeed in grabbing land for themselves.
But worst of all was the way Elisabeth’s mother acted, and did not act, with the heretics of France. That she negotiated with them instead of having them burned, that she kept playing them and the powerful Guise family against each other: all of this, Philip insisted, was a scandal. Heresy was the worst evil of their time, said Philip, and Elisabeth did not disagree, though she noticed he was not above compromising with heretics himself when it suited him. Before he had married her, he had tried to marry her namesake, the Queen of England, his former sister-in-law, and after she had turned him down, he still kept the Pope from officially excommunicating her and declaring her deposed. If he hadn’t done that, he would have had to support Mary Stuart’s claim to the English throne at a time when she’d still been Queen of France. What was this, if not compromise and policy? Was this really so different from what her mother was doing now?
Elisabeth would have never given voice to these doubts. Her husband was a good husband and king. He did not shame his queen by publicly flaunting a mistress and making the court treat her as the true queen, the way her father had done. In fact, Philip had given up the mistress he had had before their wedding, and he had not taken another since. He honored and respected her, and she owed him her complete loyalty. Whatever sense of guilt and daughterly obligation she felt towards her mother, she had to prevent it from letting her lose sight of the fact she was supposed to represent Spain in this meeting, not France.
The summer this year was one of the hottest in ages, on both sides of the border. By the time Elisabeth arrived at the French side of the river Bidassoa, she later heard, six of the French soldiers had dropped dead from the heat in their armors, waiting for her. Her own clothes, dark and in the Spanish style, without the bright colors and slashes of France, felt heavy on her skin.
Her mother was in black, too, she could see it from a distance. Always in black, except during the weddings of her children, ever since Elisabeth’s father had died. Elisabeth had been given a beautiful grey palfrey by her brother Charles, the current young King of France for whom her mother reigned, and as she rode the animal, she couldn’t help but imagine her mother’s eyes on her; her mother, who had introduced the sidesaddle to France, who’d been the first horsewoman at court in more than one sense, for few others rode. For all that she was named after the goddess of the hunt, Diane de Poitiers had not liked to ride at all. In Spain, there had not been many, either, though more each year that Elisabeth had spent there, imitating her. But no woman rode with her mother’s skill.
Elisabeth found herself wondering whether she had become sloppy on horseback through lack of competition, and whether her mother would notice. She chided herself. That was the least of all worries.
When she finally stood face to face with her mother, stood on French ground and opened her arms to embrace her, Elisabeth found herself shaking. So familiar, and not; her mother, who had always loved to eat, had gained a bit more weight, but had hardly aged otherwise. Her hair was entirely covered, but the eyebrows were still dark. Due to the hot day, there was the sweat again under the perfume.
“Your majesty,” her mother said, instead of embracing her, and sank into a faultless curtsey.
“I should be kneeling to you, Madame ma mère,” Elisabeth protested, and attempted to do so. Only then did her mother rise to catch her in her arms.
“Not so, your grace. You are, after all, the first Queen of Christendom,” her mother said, her voice with that faint Italian accent low and serious, her dark eyes intent on Elisabeth - and Elisabeth knew her mother had not forgotten a thing, not even a short conversation with a child years ago. Or anything that preceded it.
“For which I am in your debt, dearest mother,” Elisabeth replied, feeling her throat constricted.
“I know,” her mother said, and smiled at her.
Her mother had brought all of Elisabeth’s siblings with her, not just Charles, even the two youngest ones, Hercule and Margot, whom Elisabeth hardly remembered. It was both touching and troubling to meet them; and painful, for Francis, the dead brother Elisabeth had been closest to in age and affection, was not there. The last time they had all been together had been at the funeral of the King, Elisabeth’s father. They had been in tears then, too.
There were no tears when, in between receptions, speeches, masques and elaborate dinners, her mother drew Elisabeth aside and addressed what no speech had been able to disguise: Philip’s absence at what was supposed to be a meeting of rulers.
“So your husband suspects me,” her mother said, without further attempts at circumlocution. “Do you know that his suspicions will lead us straight to war?”
For a moment, Elisabeth froze. Then she told herself she was no longer a girl, and besides, even as a child she had been taught how to deflect and spar in conversation.
“What makes you suppose, Madame, that the King suspects your Majesty?”
Her mother’s eyebrows rose. “How Spanish you have become, my daughter.”
“As you became French, my mother, when you married my father,” Elisabeth parried, and saw the corners of Catherine’s mouth curve.
“Indeed. But hear me, your grace: there cannot be another war between France and Spain. We must prevent it.”
“Nothing would make my husband happier. Indeed, he would gladly lend soldiers and money to the King my brother’s Majesty so you can deal with the foes within France instead. For this,” Elisabeth continued, taking a breath, as she came to the hardest part, “troubles the King my husband most: that a Catholic monarch should in his realm foster accursed heresy.”
Philip had been insistent that none of those princes of the blood who were Protestants were to be present in Bayonne; he would not, he said, allow her to meet a heretic and become infected by their ideas. She had not said that she had met several of them during her childhood, nor brought up her namesake, the heretic Queen of England, whom he had met quite often during his time on that so thoroughly infected island.
“Spanish soldiers to deal with our Protestants would turn even a great many Catholics against your brother the King,” Elisabeth’s mother said matter-of-factly. “It might interest you that Prince Condé, whom your husband has banished from this meeting, thinks the way to unite Protestants and Catholics in France is to go to war with Spain. Unfortunately, he is not alone in that idea, and if what you just suggested is ever repeated to anyone but me, there will be even more supporting it.”
Condé and the Bourbons were those princes of the blood who were Protestant, but Elisabeth did not recall them being bold enough to voice opinions such as this in public. When she had left France, it had been the Guises who were blatantly trying to dictate royal policy, supported by their reputation as the most faithful Catholics of the realm, their money, and the fact that Mary Stuart was their niece.
“Why did you allow the heretics to become so powerful, Mother?” she asked, steeling herself for a reprimand. “Was it just to deal with the Guises?”
Her mother’s eyes flashed. “There is nothing just about any of this, Elisabeth," she returned, and with a pang, Elisabeth recalled that her mother used to employ this tactic around Diane and her circle: choosing a phrase that always left courtiers uncertain whether Catherine's French failed her, or whether she was making a deliberate pun. "The world is as it is. I cannot not simply wish the Guises away, or Condé and his Protestants. I have spent these last years negotiating with both, and I tell you, either, if they become too powerful, could bring an end to your brother’s rule and our family’s. And that I will never allow.”
“But what about the souls of the King’s subjects in France, your Majesty?” Elisabeth protested. “I understand your reasons, your Grace, I do, but how can you justify allowing more and more to damm themselves for all eternity through heresy?”
Her mother neatly folded her hands, and in direct contrast to this pious gesture said: “I am not concerned with anyone’s soul.”
There was a truth in this Elisabeth had not seen until that moment. Niece to two Popes or not, her mother had never shown more religious devotion than the bare necessity her rank demanded. She had excelled at patronage for artists, painters, architects and musicians, and been famous for bringing exquisite Italian cooks and their cuisine to France, not clergy. But it was still a far cry from this apparent utter indifference towards the cause of the true religion and half of the realm damming itself.
It was a deeply frightening realization, for that way, surely, lay damnation, and not simply for the heretics but for her mother.
“I’m concerned with their obedience, the obedience they owe my children,” her mother continued. “If I lose that, then the devil is truly loosened in France. So you’d better tell his majesty your husband to trust me in this. France will not start a war with Spain, for it would ruin us. But if we are already ruined because, say, there is continual meddling through certain nobles, then we are already ruined, and then who knows what might happen?”
It was impossible to say whether this had been meant as a plea, a warning or a threat, or all three. This, presumably, was what three Spanish ambassadors in a row had meant when telling Philip they found it impossible to get a straight answer from the Queen Mother of France.
“I will pray for you, your grace,” Elisabeth murmured, for while she wasn’t sure how her husband would respond to this, she was very much afraid how God would.
“That is good to know,” her mother replied, let a heartbeat pass, and then added: “As you were ever my child of hope.”