Comparisons of Catherine de Medici and Elizabeth I can obviously begin with the periods of their respective reigns as monarchs, the former running from 1547 to 1559 and the latter from 1558 to her death in 1603. In other words, both sat on thrones during crucial periods of the 16th Century, a notoriously unstable period in European history. And, both died at the age of 69, a not very interesting bit of information, but grounds for a trivial comparison nonetheless. Beyond that, their respective reigns were dramatically different, with Catherine de Medici’s name becoming synonymous with backroom palace intrigues while Elizabeth I’s reign was relatively stable, moderate, and peaceful, excepting the conflicts with everyone named “Mary.” Elizabeth’s main rivals for power were her sister Mary and her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, both of whom challenged Elizabeth for the crown on the basis of legitimacy and, more importantly, their continued identification as Catholics relative to Elizabeth’s Protestant upbringing. That said, Elizabeth did reign as a queen with no husband, or pretender to the throne, to complicate her life any further. In fact, hers was considered a virginal reign for her decision/failure/inability to marry and produce offspring who could become heirs to the throne. That Elizabeth was the product of the decidedly unholy union of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the former having had the latter executed when their daughter was only two-years-old left some convinced that her claim to the throne was tenuous at best.
While Elizabeth’s life was not without drama, her rule was considered, as noted earlier, relatively stable and just. Her tenure lasted many years, and was considered instrumental in the establishment of a flourishing environment for the arts. In contrast, Catherine de Medici’s reign was considerably more turbulent and the peak of her influence occurred not while she reigned as queen to husband, Henry II, King of France, but later when her sons assumed the throne. Especially during the reign of Charles IX, who assumed the throne at age nine, Catherine was the true wielder of power and she would continue through the reigns of her three sons to be a major “behind the scenes” force with which to reckon. Emblematic of the family whose name she carried, Catherine was a true practitioner of the dark arts of ruthless and occasionally murderous politics. That the Medici would prove the model for Machiavelli’s theory of leadership and governance was testament to the skills and ruthlessness that family possessed, and Catherine was no exception. While Elizabeth had to contend with rivals for power and with the constancy of the post-Reformation fall-out, her period of rule was no match for the intrigues that constantly surrounded Catherine de Medici.