The Italian-born queen of Henry II, Catherine’s superstitions were well-known throughout France; she usually had astrologers attending her or employed on her payroll, even though they were often wrong. She was not alone in her credulity, but credulity in one so powerful attracted its fair share of hucksters and charlatans—to the point where her third son Henry would later exclaim, exasperated, that he was tired of seeing his mother “cheated by false magicians who got a great deal of money out of her and didn’t do anything.” Nostradamus now joined this long list of seers, and dutifully visited to read the fortune of Catherine and Henry’s children, for which he was paid a modest fee of one hundred and thirty crowns (one hundred of which, he complained bitterly to a friend, was spent on the arduous trip to Paris itself).
At the time, his contemporaries were still more interested in the coming year than 1999 or 3797. But then came the unexpected. During a festival on June 30, 1559, Henry II took part in a jousting match, during which a freak accident occurred: his opponent, Gabriel Montgomery, broke his lance on Henry’s shield, and a sliver of the wood shot up under the king’s helmet and lodged above his eye in his brain. Henry bore it bravely, but lingered in agony for ten days before he died.
Now many at court, mourning and looking for answers, turned to the thirty-fifth quatrain in the first Century of the Prophecies:
The young lion will overcome the old
On the field of battle in single combat:
He put out his eyes in a cage of gold:
Two fleets one, then to die a cruel death.
Skeptics could protest that Montgomery may have been only six years younger than Henry—and not exactly “young”—or that Henry’s helmet was probably not made out of gold, or that the splinter in his brain did not actually enter his eye, or that no “fleets” of any kind were involved. But none of those arguments, then or now, mattered to those who—most notably Catherine herself—were convinced that Nostradamus had foreseen the king’s freakish demise.
In the wake of her husband’s death, Catherine began regularly consulting Nostradamus and his prophecies. She brought up his predictions in discussions with foreign ambassadors, and in 1564 brought her son, King Charles IX, to Salon to have his fortune read by the seer, who told the fourteen-year-old ruler he’d be “A great man in war, second to none in piety.”
His prophecies were not always so pandering. He told Catherine that all four of her sons would live to be king, which sounds good until one realizes that this means the first three were headed for early deaths. He went on to predict that one day her entire line would be extinct, the seeming accuracy of the forecast providing cold comfort when her favorite daughter Elizabeth died in childbirth a few years later. Indeed, when one tallies up Nostradamus’ predictions, he seems to have been most accurate when predicting calamity for his greatest patron. But Catherine’s life was always going to be one of constant violence and sudden destruction. If his quatrains could not stop all of this, at least she could take comfort in knowing that there was some larger order governing this chaos. Be it in the stars or in God, at least the deaths of her husband and children weren’t entirely arbitrary.
Nostradamus was a voice for his times. He spoke of wars, famines, dynasties falling, and the world ending, and after his death in 1566 from dropsy, his writings would continue to reappear in times of similar calamity. Theophilus de Garencières, his first English translator, published The Prophecies in London in 1672, just six years after much of the city had been destroyed, first by plague and then by fire. In those tumultuous times in England, Nostradamus’ work found a new life in assuaging Britons’ anxieties: when Charles II failed to produce a legitimate heir, a pamphlet appeared falsely claiming that Nostradamus had predicted the king would soon sire a son from his own body.
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