Throughout history, Catherine de’ Medici has been considered something of a sorceress, a 16th-century French queen and banking heiress adroitly trained in the mixing of potions and capable of murder without a hint of remorse. One legend that has helped this reputation to endure is the story of Jeanne d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre.
France in the 1500s was a place of constant civil war between Catholics and Protestants. Jeanne d’Albret fiercely defended the Protestant cause in France and declared it the official religion of her kingdom, much to the displeasure of Catherine, a strict Catholic who was married to King Henry II of France. In an effort to unite the country, a marriage was arranged between d’Albret’s son, Henry, and Catherine’s daughter, the Princess Marguerite. What happened next has long baffled historians.
Two months before the strategic wedding, Jeanne d’Albret died suddenly, along with all her resistance to keep the marriage from going forward. Many of the Protestants whose religion she championed during her lifetime believed the death to be murder and pointed to Catherine as the prime suspect. The choice of weapon? A pair of poisoned leather gloves.
When Catherine de’ Medici came to France by way of marriage, she brought with her several trends from her native Florence, including cooking utensils and techniques, Italian architecture, and beauty rituals. Italy in the 16th century was a fragrant place where perfume was used to scent skin as well as all articles of clothing. Catherine arrived in France with her personal perfumer, René le Florentin, and a vast collection of custom perfumes.
She promptly introduced perfumed black driving gloves–or sweet gloves–to the French court, where men and women wore them as the ultimate emblem of prestige. Leather was the most popular choice for sweet gloves, but scenting a leather glove was no easy feat. To start with, the leather tanning process at the time used animal excrement, which gave the finished product a smooth finish but a repulsively rancid odor. This was why leather glove makers had turned to perfume to mask the less than luxurious smell in the first place.
Perfumers in the 16th century had to use many different natural ingredients for this to be successful, though. Sweet gloves were most commonly scented with herbs, spices, woods, and flowers such as jasmine, violet, iris, and orange blossom. It was a time consuming process: First, the ingredients were mixed with animal fat or oil, then boiled, and later separated. Gloves were then dipped into the fragrant liquid and left outside to dry. Depending on the material used and the power of odor desired, the process was repeated several times.
But although her sweet classic leather gloves became popular in court and throughout France, Queen Catherine was never truly accepted by the French people she ruled over, who viewed her as a manipulative foreigner with a passion for the Dark Arts. The French had long considered Italians masters of poison and witchcraft, and Catherine’s interest in and support for science–especially astronomy and astrology–was accepted as proof of her occultism.
She was also known for the unusual methods she experimented with to become pregnant, like ingesting the urine of pregnant animals. Of all of the challenges that Catherine faced during her lifetime, perhaps the most difficult was the accusation of her infertility. It took ten years for the King and Queen to conceive a child and all blame was placed upon the Queen. The public viewed all her attempts to influence the process as immoral.