While there were all sorts of machinations happening in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, there was a shadowy figure across the English Channel — the French Queen, Catherine de’ Medici. An outsider in every sense of the word, being Italian in the French court, and a commoner among the glittering royals, Catherine nevertheless managed to rule from 1547 till her death in 1589, first by marriage to King Henri II and then as a mother to three French kings, Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III.
Based on Leonie Frieda’s non-fiction book, ‘ Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France’, The Serpent Queen looks at the myth and reality of Catherine’s journey.
The Serpent queen
The Serpent Queen is framed by Catherine (Samantha Morton) in the lead-up to her son’s coronation telling her story to Rahima (Sennia Nanua), her new maid. Though the staff is obviously terrified of the so-called Black Queen and chooses a lowly maid, who they call ‘it’, to serve her, Catherine reveals a sense of humour and genuine interest in Rahima. Further, Morton is brilliant in conveying so much with just a tightening of her lips or the slight curve of her mouth to indicate rueful amusement. Her crystal clear eyes convey her uncompromising gaze at her past, present, and future and the decisions and price she paid to get there.
We go back to Italy where Catherine, Duchessina of Urbino (Liv Hill), orphaned within a month of her birth, is brought up in a convent. Catherine’s uncle, Pope Clement VII (Charles Dance) sees her as a useful pawn to further his ends. There is no shortage of suitors for the rather plain-looking, feisty 14-year-old thanks to the large dowry promised. The Pope chooses Henri (Alex Heath, Lee Ingleby plays the older Henri), the second son of the King Francis (Colm Meaney) of France.
Catherine chooses her entourage, which includes Aabis (Amrita Acharia), Mathilde (Kiruna Stamell), and Angelica (Ruby Bentall), as her maids in waiting, the fortune teller, Ruggeri (Enzo Cilenti), and Sebastio (Adam Garcia), her atelier.
Though she commits the cardinal sin of falling in love with Henri, who is gentle and kind, Catherine realizes that he is enamoured by the much older Diane de Poitiers (Ludivine Sagnier). Upon Dauphin’s death, Henri becomes heir to the throne.
From her wedding night, when her marriage is consummated in the presence of the court with the King noting that “each had shown valour in the joust”, Catherine’s every movement is the object of scrutiny. Her inability to provide an heir to the throne for over 10 years made Catherine’s position in court tenuous. However, even after producing an heir and many spares (the royal couple had 10 children), Catherine still had to fight for every inch of space in court. Religious strife has created deep schisms in France. The Catholics on the King’s privy council are led by François de Guise (Raza Jaffrey) and his brother Cardinal Charles (Ray Panthaki) with their mother, Antoinette (Beth Goddard) goading them on.
The protestant side is led by Antoine de Bourbon (Nicholas Burns) and his brother Louis (Danny Kirrane). Montmorency (Barry Atsma), also a member of the Privy Council, is neutral and the voice of reason, that not many are willing to listen to. With their niece, Mary, Queen of Scots (Antonia Clarke), betrothed to Catherine and Henri’s eldest son and heir, Francis II (George Jaques), the de Guises see a bright future ahead. In the zealot, Mary, de Guise, and the Holy Roman Emperor (Rupert Everett) feel a united Catholic Europe as a distinct possibility.
Catherine is not willing to see things that way and feels that France will be destroyed under Mary’s religious persecution. The show explores Catherine’s reasons for doing what she does—is it out of love for Henri or France or power?
Gorgeously mounted, The Serpent Queen plays into some of the myths that Catherine is associated with from the poisoned apple and high heels, to a fortune-telling mirror and underwear. The show follows in that grand tradition of a soap opera played out in palaces quite like The Tudors. Peopled with interesting, conflicted characters, intrigue, poisonings, torture, throat-slitting, religion and rock (including an interesting cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ by Marianne Faithfull), The Serpent Queen is a happy excursion into another time and space where the problems remain the same.
The Serpent Queen is currently streaming on Lionsgate Play