The Serpent Queen on Starzplay: Who was known as The Serpent Queen and what is the show based on?

One of the most vilified women of the 16th century - but did she deserve it?

Samantha Morton as The Serpent Queen on Starzplay
(Image credit: Starzplay/Future)

From humble beginnings to one of the most powerful women of her era - the rise of the original independent woman.

Sisters are definitely doing it for themselves - both in modern monarchies, and of those from centuries past. In the latest historical television adaption to showcase the power and influence of a woman in shaping the patriarchal world around her, The Serpent Queen shines a light on one of the 16th century’s strongest women - and the lasting legacy she left behind. From an orphaned teenager in a country that doesn’t want her, to ruling with an iron fist, the series charts everything that happens in between and how one woman made it happen. Here’s everything we know about The Serpent Queen herself, and the inspiration behind the adaption.

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Who was known as The Serpent Queen? 

Catherine de’ Medici was known as The Serpent Queen. Also known as Catherine de Médicis, or the Italian Caterina de’ Medici, the so-called Serpent Queen was born on April 13, 1519 in Florence, and died on January 5, 1589, in France. 

She was born to the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, and Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne - a Bourbon princess with many noble french relations. Orphaned within days of her birth, Catherine was raised by nuns in Florence and Rome until she was married to Henry, duc d’Orléans, in 1533 - he was second son of the King of France.  

Although Henry had a known and open love for his mistress Diane de Poitiers, Catherine continued her mission as his wife, to provide him with an heir. Following a decade of infertility, Catherine was able to become pregnant on 10 occasions, with 4 boys and 3 girls surviving. 

In 1547 Henry was crowned Henry II of France, but was killed in a jousting accident in 1559. His and Catherine’s eldest son Francis took the throne, but died less than a year later. In 1560 their second son Charles was crowned King, at the age of 10. Acting as regent for the young king, Catherine dominated Charles’ reign.  

She attempted conciliatory relations towards the French Protestants until the 1562 civil war broke out, heralding the beginning of the series of conflicts collectively known as the French Wars of Religion. 

In 1572 Catherine made further efforts to reconcile with the Protestants, arranging the marriage of her daughter Marguerite to Protestant Henry, King of Navarre. During the celebrations, Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny was assassinated, along with hundreds of other Protestants attending the wedding. The event became known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and it is thought Catherine played a part in its organisation. 

For the rest of her life, Catherine continued to maintain a central role in the French government, and made further attempts to reconcile warring religious oppositions until her death in 1589. Her legacy is that of an evil and wicked power-hungry villain. However, some historians believe this is the result of stigma attached to women as political leaders, stemming from myth rather than fact. Her continued efforts to bring peace between religions and unify the monarchy are often overlooked. 

Who is playing The Serpent Queen? 

Samantha Morton is playing The Serpent Queen. As a British actress and director, Morton has worked extensively in TV and film since 1991. 

Beginning her career with small roles in shows such as Soldier Soldier and Cracker, Morton embarked on a successful film career beginning with a lead role in the 1996 version of Emma. For her appearance in the Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown in 1999, the actress earned both Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress.

Actress Samantha Morton

(Image credit: Michael Kovac/Getty)

Her second Academy Award nomination came in 2003 for the film America, and for her role in 2006 film Longford, she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Series, Miniseries or Television Film. A BAFTA award for Best Single Drama soon followed, for her directorial debut with the 2009 television film The Unloved. Recently making a return to television, Morton played acclaimed and high profile roles in Harlots, and The Walking Dead.  

What is The Serpent Queen based on?

The Serpent Queen is based on the biography Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, by Leonie Frieda. First published in 2006, the book delves into the legend of Catherine as a known poisoner, oppressive ruler, and witch - known for her alleged interest in the dark arts. 

Author Leonie Frieda retells the story of the maligned queen who was likely unjustly negatively labelled, due to being a skilled and powerful leader - and a woman. 

Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda 

Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France by Leonie Frieda 

RRP: £17.29 | Buy at: Amazon

Read the inspiration for the STARZ original series The Serpent Queen, starring Samantha Morton

From being orphaned within days of her birth, to her unwavering attempts to bring peace and fiercely protect her son's claim to the throne, Frieda’s reimagining offers an alternative look at one of history’s most vilified leaders. The biography is based on the study of thousands of private letters written during the time of Catherine's rule. 

Is The Serpent Queen a true story?

Yes, The Serpent Queen is based on true events. The biography it is based on, Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, is based on true events - therefore, the TV adaption is based on a true story. 

Speaking to Collider about reading the scripts for the show and the reimagining of Catherine, Samantha Morton said “A lot of the costume dramas I've done are all literature. When you listen to the audiobook, Leonie's audiobook about Catherine, the Serpent Queen, it's history. I thought, ‘Well, how are they going to do it? How are they going to do this?’ It can be quite boring sometimes for people that aren't history buffs”.

She continued: “I wanted it to be something that really was relatable, to young people, to people of all genders, people of all races. I just wanted something that was entertainment as well, so you get a history lesson at the same time as watching a really fantastic show. When I read the scripts, I was like, ‘He's so clever. I get it”. There are some big twists that happen later on that are really exciting”.

How many episodes in The Serpent Queen? 

There are 8 episodes of The Serpent Queen. Episode 1 landed on Starzplay on September 11, 2022. The remaining 7 episodes will air weekly for the remainder of the season.

  • Episode 1: Medici Bitch - September 11, 2022
  • Episode 2: To War Rather Than To Bed - September 18, 2022
  • Episode 3:  The Price - September 25, 2022
  • Episode 4: A New Era - October 2, 2022
  • Episode 5: The First Regency - October 9, 2022
  • Episode 6: The Last Joust - October 16, 2022
  • Episode 7: An Attack on The King - October 23, 2022
  • Episode 8: A Queen is Made - October 30, 2022

Samantha Morton as Catherine de Medici in The Serpent Queen

(Image credit: Starzplay)

The Serpent Queen: Reviews 

On review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, The Serpent Queen currently has a critic score of 100%, and an audience core of 55%

Matthew Gilbert of The Boston Globe, said "Samantha Morton, whose career has brought her from strength to strength, is just right for the role. She doesn’t telegraph evil and occult so much as she gives us a woman doing what she can to survive in a man’s world".

Offering the show 4/5, Fiona Sturges of The Financial Times said "With its spicy language and Fleabag-esque glances to camera, this very modern imagining of Catherine’s life is enormous fun".

Audience reviews on the site are very mixed, with one reviewer gushing "I enjoyed the first episode. I'm a sucker for strong heroines. The acting and costumes are great. The 4th wall breaks are fun. It was entertaining and fresh".

A less than enthusiastic viewer however, wrote "It was just ok.. i will see in the weeks to come if it develops more interest for me... but for now its just ok!"

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Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.