Medici Refugees in England

Catherine (Caterina) de Medici married Henry Duke of Orleans (future King Henry II) of France in 1533. That same year her beloved cousin Ippolito was murdered by Alessandro son of Pope Clement VII (Giulio de Medici). Catherine immediately brought many of her closest relatives to France to avoid further persecution by the collateral branch of the Medici’s now in power in Italy. These included, most notably, the four sons of her aunt Clarissa, who had been evicted from Florence by Alessandro. Clarissa had cared for Catherine as a child, and was married to the ultra-wealthy banker Philippo Strozzi.

All four Strozzi brothers eventually were appointed to high offices. Piero became Captain-General, Roberto remained a banker in charge of royal loans and fund raising, Lorenzo was appointed Bishop of Beziers, and Leone was over the Levant Fleet. Leone captured St. Andrews in Scotland and the Protestan leader John Knox. Leone later died in attempt to take back Florence from a rival Medici. The fiery Piero led a number of military campaigns with mixed success and died recapturing a town from the Protestants. Catherine was also supported by the Florence merchant Antonio Gondi and his French wife Marie-Catherine (who became her treasurer), and their sons, particularly Alberto Gondi, Trustee, Marshal, and Comte/Duke of Retz. Poet Luigi Alamanni became leader of the Florentine expatriates in France.

Some years prior to these events, in 1523, Giulio de Medici had wrangled the Papacy away from the control of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain. Clement tried to quickly solidify his position by forming the League of Cognac between the Papal States, Florence, Venice, France, and England, all against the Habsburgs. The alliance was weak, primarily due to lack of French commitment, and the forces of Charles V sacked Rome. Clement recovered gloriously as Pope by selling out to Charles, but then died unexpectedly in 1534. His son Alessandro, “Il Moro (The Moor)”, had been married to Margaret of Austria, a daughter of Charles V, but was murdered by a Medici cousin and yet another branch of the Medici emerged, that of Cosimo (son of John des Bandes Noires de Medici and Maria Salviati daughter of Lucrezia de Medici-Salviati). This Cosimo became Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany by 1537. To gain Florence, Cosimo had aligned himself with the Habsburg king Charles V, which put him at odds with his Medici kinswoman Catherine Queen of France.

In 1539, four of the six “sons “of one Jeronimo Bossano immigrated to England by express permission of the Duke/Doge of Venice. They were called Alvise (Alvisy/Lewe) de Blasia, Jasper, John (Giovanni), and Anthony (Antonio). Jeronimo is a variant of the Italian/Medici name Giuliano/Girolama. However, there were two prominent Medici princes by that name during this time period. One was the father of Pope Clement and grandfather of Alessandro. The father of this Giuliano was named Piero (son of the first Cosimo). The other Giuliano was a nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent and appointed a Cardinal of the Church by the age of 13. He was the father of at least one illegitimate son Ippolito appointed Cardinal at age 20. His elder brother, also named Piero/Pierre (nicknamed Piva?) was the grandfather of Catherine. Some of the descendants of both men may have been persecuted at this time.

Two other “sons” of Jeronimo named Jacomo and Baptista came to England later on. Jacopo da Ponte Bossana (1515-1592) son of Francesco Bosanno the Elder was a contemporary figure in Italy and had a son named Giovanni Battiste.

Jacopo was also the name of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s son-in-law. Jacopa Salviati, also an ultra-rich banker, was married to one of the daughters of Lorenzo the Magnificent named Lucrezia, who had cared for the young Catharine along with Clarissa Strozzi. Her children like those of Clarissa would have received patronage and protection from Catharine after she gained power in France. The town of Bossana then emerges as the place of a country estate used by the Medici family, especially as an artist’s colony.

Baptista son of Jeronimo was of such high standing that he could take an English noblewoman, Margaret Johnson, as his “concubine”. By her he became father of Emilia/Aemilia Bossano. There were at least two prominent men named Baptista related to Catherine de Medici. Jean-Battiste Gondi (1501-1580) was Steward of the Queen. Giovanni Battiste Gondi was her personal banker. Catherine borrowed from him in 1574 after the death of her son Charles IX and to ensure the succession of her younger son Henri III.

Portrait of Jean-Battiste Gondi

It was about 1576 when Aemilia Bossano daughter of Baptista, aged seven, was adopted into the English royal family. In 1578, Queen Elizabeth announced her interest in a marriage with Catherine’s youngest son Hercules/Alencon. In late 1581, she accepted a marriage proposal of Alencon, but then backed out. However, she did finance Alencon’s unsuccessful attempt to become king in the Netherlands. Her support of Alencon, even if well intended, served to further divide the French ruling house and also created animosity between France and Philip of Spain (the present rulers of the Netherlands). In 1582, Elizabeth gave Catharine ships in order to help her claim the throne of Portugal. The mission failed and a member of the Strozzi family (Catherine’s bodyguard Philippo Strozzi the Younger) was killed.

Also in the early 1580’s, Aemilia Bossano became mistress of Henry Carey, son of Mary Boleyn, and possibly the true son of Henry VIII (making him the half-brother as well as cousin of Queen Elizabeth). Mingling Medici and English royal blood would have been a calculated move by Elizabeth and encouraged for political reasons. Medici power was on the rise. The Medici international banking empire was founded by Giovanni di Bici de Medici (1360-1429). His son Cosimo (1389-1464) opened banks in London, Geneva, Lyons (France) and other cities in Europe. He was a patron of Donatello and early Renaissance masters and hailed as Pater Patriae, “Father of the Country”. In the following generations, their enterprises only expanded.

Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo (“The Magnificent”) became a scholar, poet, curator of antiquities, patron of the Renaissance masters, diplomat, politician, and champion of Medici interests. Lorenzo married Alfonsina of the noble Orsini family and his son Giovanni son of Lorenzo was elected Pope (Leo X) at the age of 37 without ever having served as a priest, bishop, or cardinal! He was patron of great artists such as Raphael and of comedies. Giovanni the Pope made an alliance with Francis King of France. The Pope’s nephew (Lorenzo II grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent) was married to a royal princess of the Bourbon house and made Duke of Urbino (in Italy). Giovanni’s brother Giulano also married into French royalty (the aunt of King Francis) and consequently became Duke of Nemours (south-east of Paris). The Medici family had already become European royalty, and all this before Catherine daughter of Lorenzo II married Henry II of France and became mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots.

The Medici family of the 16th Century was equivalent to the Templar organization of the Crusades in banking and as an intermediary between East and West, Christian and Muslim worlds. The Medici family was evidently comfortable doing business in any guise, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Islamic. Catharine arrived at the French Court accompanied by Marie “the Moor” as well as Agnes and Margaret “the Turks”. While still a tiny duchessina in Italy, Catharine was proud of her Moorish features and objected to her portrait being made over in European style. However, as Queen of France she bleached her hair and lightened her complexion using a lead-based foundation. Catharine made an alliance with the Sultan of Turkey and supplied him with French ships. She later sought to extend French control over Transylvania and Hungary on the new frontier with the Turks (who had captured Constantinople and were threatening Europe). Curiously, Catherine’s personal color green along with the high star and crescent moon of her husband’s mistress Diana became symbols of Arab countries.

Queen Elizabeth may not have ever met Catharine in person. She tried to curb Catherine’s power by covertly aiding Protestant encroachment in France, but Elizabeth was not about to let the Medici Renaissance pass England by. Besides the Medici brothers that came directly from Italy, others came by way of France, such as the Lanier family that intermarried with the Bossano family. In fact, the surname Lanier appears to be a variant on Giulano, even as the given name Geronimo. Prior to his marriage to Lucretia Bossano, the so-called Hugenot/Protestant Nicholas Lanier already had a son with the Italian/Medici name Alfonse (who later married Aemilia Bossano) by a former wife with the Italian name Lucrezia. (Note: Alfonso II of Ferrara D’Este was also married to a Lucrezia de Medici. He died in 1587 and is thought to have had only one daughter, d’Anne D’Este-Ferrare. Alfonse Lanier died in 1613.)

With the death of Queen Catherine of France and her last remaining son Henri III, both in 1589, the fortunes of Catherine’s Medici relatives also began to fade. The successor of Henri III, the Bourbon king Henry king of Navarre (Henry VI) promptly married Marie de Medici and she gave birth to the next king of France, Louis XIII. However, her immediate Medici kin likely had little use for those Medicis now on the out. In England, Aemilia Bossano was dismissed by Lord Hunsdon and married to her Medici kinsman Alfonse Lanier in 1592. Aemilia and her young son Henry probably became a liability rather than potential bargaining chips for Queen Elizabeth.

Alfonse banked on the claim of the Earl of Essex to the throne of England and was part of his disastrous campaign against Ireland. Aemilia continued her involvement with the Shakespeare Company under Henry Carey’s son George. This may have entailed an affair with Shakespeare himself, but it would have gained her little security. Shakespeare accepted a bribe to perform the play Edward II in order to stir up support for the Earl of Essex in seizing the throne. Essex failed pathetically and was executed by Queen Elizabeth in 1598, and her attitude toward Shakespeare (and presumably Alfonse and Aemilia as well) soured. Fortunately for Shakespeare and his circle, when James VI of Scotland became king of England in 1603, he made Shakespeare the royal playwright, but that’s as close to royalty as Aemilia would ever come again.

There are many elements in Midsummer Night’s Dream that derive from the life of Queen Catherine de Medici.

Catherine was derogatively called “The Black Queen” and “Madame La Serpente”. The Protestant movement hoped that Catherine would be their new Esther, but increasingly accused her of baiting them into the open for slaughter. She was known for her smooth olive skin and big, bulging, brown eyes. In the play, Hermia is referred to as “the Ethiope” and in the forest dreams that a serpent was eating her heart. She is however complimented on her complexion and transfixing stare by Helen.

Prior to the “greatest match in the world”, as Pope Clement VII declared her marriage to Henry, many others had been considered as partners for Catharine, including Gonzaga, Este, Rovere, the Duke of Richmond son of Henry VIII, the Prince of Orange, and even James V king of Scotland. Her first love had been her kinsman (“Demetrius”) Ippolito who had been sent off by Clement and Alessandro to Hungary to deal with the Turks. Catharine later loved the foreign prince (“Lysander”) Henry, and eventually his love also turned back to her.

Like the Lysander of the Shakespeare play, Henry had another lover, his life-long mistress Diane. Henry’s mother died when he was very young after which Henry spent over four years as a prisoner of Charles V. The older Diane was the mother figure Henry never had, and her influence over him began even before Catharine arrived at Court when he and Catharine were but 14 years old. It steadily increased up until Henry was killed in his 40th year during a jousting exhibition in 1559. However, the spell of Diane over Henry began to change for Catharine’s good after the death of Henry’s father king Francis. Diane and Catharine entered into an alliance against their mutual rivals in order to maintain their influence. Diane also realized that it was to her advantage that Catharine produce heirs and convinced Henry to pursue it seriously.

The long night in the forest of Midsummer Night’s Dream corresponds to strange, confusing, and protracted relationship between Catherine and Diane. In real life, Diane was likened to her namesake, the crescent moon goddess Diana, and was called by the secret name Silvius (“of the woods”) by Henry. In the play, Catherine corresponds to Hermia and Diana to Titania. (The names of Diana and Titania are also linked by Ovid.) Another name in the play, Hippolyta, is the feminine form of Hippolito, the dashing but tragic kinsman of Catharine. The name Lysander bears some resemblance to Alessandro. Another peculiar character in Midsummer Night’s Dream is Wall. Catharine, like Henry, spent many years as a political hostage, including an unpleasant stay at a convent nicknamed della Murate (“Walled-in-Ones”).

The theme of magic in Midsummer Night’s Dream also relates to Catharine, who was drawn to astrology and even sorcery. Emilia Bossano seems to have imitated her great relative in this regard, as her Alfonse also seemed to imitate his better known cousin Piero Strozzi in risky military adventures.

In conclusion, there is much evidence that Midsummer Night’s Dream blends mythology with contemporary political and religious themes from England and France, and presents it all with a festive Medici cast.


Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda

“Guillaume d’Estouteville” replaces “Jeronimo Tutavilla”

Gondi closely related to the Medici: