Portrait of Francis I by
king of France
also called (until 1515) Francis of Angoulême, French François
born Sept. 12, 1494, Cognac, France
died March 31, 1547, Rambouillet
king of France (1515–47), the first of five monarchs of the Angoulême
branch of the House of Valois. A Renaissance patron of the arts and
scholarship, a humanist, and a knightly king, he waged campaigns in
Italy (1515–16) and fought a series of wars with the Holy Roman Empire
Francis was the son of Charles de Valois-Orleáns, comte d’Angoulême,
and Louise of Savoy. On the accession of his cousin Louis XII in 1498,
Francis became heir presumptive and was given the Duchy of Valois. With
his sister Marguerite, he was raised by his mother, who had been widowed
at the age of 20 and whom he deeply revered; he knelt whenever he spoke
to her. No one had as much power over him as these two women. Idolized,
he grew up following his own whims, without discipline and more
infatuated with chivalrous romances, songs, and violent exercise than
with classical studies. He was greatly admired by the gay, young circle
of his mother’s cultured court for his athletic build and the elegance
of his demeanour and manners. His need for female companions stemmed
from this upbringing, as did his lack of realism and his chivalrous
Louis XII, distrustful of Francis, did not allow him to dabble in
affairs of state but sent him off at the age of 18 to the frontiers,
which had been attacked in force. There, Francis learned more about
warfare and, being of a sensual nature, about the licentiousness of camp
life than about how to govern the state or, even more, to govern
himself. Shortly before his death, Louis XII married him to Claude, his
15-year-old daughter. On Jan. 1, 1515, at the age of 20, Francis became
king of France.
His quick and shrewd mind, his amazing memory, and his universal
curiosity compensated for his inexperience. But, because he was outgoing
and trusting and incapable of dissembling, he was always a bad
politician. The pomp of the Reims coronation, the sumptuous cortege of
the solemn entry into Paris, and the lavish feasts revealed his love of
ceremony and also pleased the people of Paris, who had been disheartened
by a long succession of morose and sickly sovereigns.
Promise of a great reign
Louis XII had left an army prepared to reconquer the Duchy of Milan.
This ill-fated dream of recovering his great-grandmother Valentina
Visconti’s heritage—which had been lost, retaken, then lost
again—fascinated Francis in his turn. Ambitious for glory and urged on
by turbulent young nobles, he made sure of peace with his neighbours,
entrusted the regency to his mother, and galloped off to Italy.
At the bloody Battle of Marignano, charging at the head of his
cavalry, he defeated the reportedly invincible Swiss mercenaries of Duke
Massimiliano Sforza and his ally Pope Leo X. After the victory, by his
own wish, he was knighted by the captain who had fought most bravely:
Bayard, the most famous chevalier of his time.
The Pope received his conqueror in Bologna. Surrounded by his
glittering pontifical court and by his famous artists, he dazzled
Francis with concerts, banquets, and theatrical performances. The Pope
offered him a Madonna by Raphael and negotiated a concordat that
returned to the Pope the benefices of the rich church of France, while
the nomination of prelates was assigned to the King, who was desirous of
strengthening his authority over a clergy grown too acquisitive and
Buoyed up by a victor’s prestige, the King spoke as a sovereign,
using for the first time the formula of absolute power: “For such is our
pleasure.” Prosperity permitted him to grant a princely pension to
Sforza, as well as to Leonardo da Vinci and other artists who brought
masterpieces to his court. He also signed a perpetual peace treaty with
the Swiss and bought back Tournai from Henry VIII of England. And, as a
pledge of unalterable friendship, the first-born royal child, Princess
Louise, was affianced to the Habsburg prince Charles, heir to the
Netherlands and, at 16, the new king of Spain.
Everything forecast a great reign. Francis I formed a brilliant and
scholarly court at which poets, musicians, and learned men mingled with
rough noblemen from the provinces whom idleness was making dangerous. He
welcomed lovely ladies at court, saying, “A court without women is a
year without spring and a spring without roses.” The arts, elegance, and
chivalrous gallantry served to refine the licentious manners of the
The frail queen Claude, gentle and pious, bore a child each year.
Francis respected her and sought her advice. In the meantime, he loved
the dark-haired comtesse de Châteaubriant, without, however, foregoing
nocturnal escapades with his childhood companions, who had now become
his ministers and his favourites.
Francis toured France tirelessly, showing himself to people who had
never seen a king. He was constantly travelling on horseback, winter and
summer, whether well or ill. He became familiar with everything: men,
roads, rivers, resources, and needs. During his travels, he emptied
prisons, curtailed the abuses of judicial powers by the nobles, lavished
largesse on the people, and provided games and processions for them,
speaking to them in his grand manner, warmly and openly: “My friends, my
beloved ones . . . .”
Popular, happy, the father of two sons, he was the most powerful
sovereign in all Christendom when, in 1519, the German emperor
Maximilian died. The election as emperor of Maximilian’s grandson
Charles spelled ruin for Francis I, for Charles, who was already king of
Spain, now encircled France with his possessions.
Rivalry with Charles V
Nineteen years old, secretive, cool-headed, and a clever politician,
the Emperor had his mind set on a universal monarchy. His chief obstacle
was the King of France. A mortal hatred emerged from this rivalry,
leading to 27 years of savage warfare, interrupted by truces that were
invariably violated. In 1520, on the Field of Cloth of Gold near Calais,
where both displayed unprecedented magnificence, Francis vainly sought
an alliance with Henry VIII.
Hostilities between Charles V and France began in 1521 in the north
and in the Pyrenees, while the two brothers of the King’s mistress were
losing Milan. The soldiers remained unpaid, and the army was
disintegrating. The King, unconcerned, arose late, paid little attention
to his council, and gave orders without seeing that they were carried
out. Money disappeared into thin air. A few paymasters were hanged,
though in vain.
In 1523 the King demanded the return to the French state, according
to law, of the vast provinces that the great feudal duke Charles de
Bourbon thought he had inherited from his wife. Incensed, Bourbon turned
traitor and joined the Emperor’s service, claiming that the French,
weary of the prodigality of their sovereign, would rise up on an appeal
from him. Commanding the imperial army, he invaded Provence, was driven
back near Marseille, and withdrew toward Italy. Francis I was pursuing
him when he learned of the death of his wife Claude, at the age of 24,
exhausted from seven pregnancies. The death of his second daughter
followed soon after. Meanwhile, the English and the Germans were
advancing in the north. In vain, his mother begged him to return: “Our
good angel has abandoned us. Your horoscope forecasts disaster!” At the
Battle of Pavia in 1525, defeated and wounded, he was taken prisoner.
“Madame, to inform you of the rest of my misfortune, I have nothing left
to me save my honour and my life.”
As the price for the King’s freedom, the Emperor demanded one-third
of France, the renunciation of France’s claim to Italy, and restitution
to Bourbon of his fiefs, with the addition of Provence. “I am resolved
to endure prison for as long as God wills rather than accept terms
injurious to my kingdom!” replied the King.
Imprisoned in a dismal tower in Madrid, the recluse composed
melancholy poems, songs, and letters to his subjects, heartrending in
their humility and their tender nobility. The mortifying defeat, the
dangerous situation of his country, and the confinement aggravated his
habitual migraines, the consequence of old wounds and of newly
contracted syphilis. When he was struck down by an abscess in his head,
his people, loyal in bad fortune as in good, prayed for him. The
Archbishop of Tournon said a mass at his bedside, in the presence of his
sister Marguerite, who had hastened to Madrid.
Decline and death
Although Francis finally recovered, he did not cease to suffer. His
personality changed. Sudden reversals of mood, excesses of severity and
clemency, inconsistencies in his statesmanship and in his personal
behaviour marked him; his mind sometimes wandered.
The Emperor persisted in his exorbitant claims. Resigned to die in
prison, the King abdicated in favour of his eldest son. France judged
this abdication to be the worst possible move. The Dauphin was too
young; the country was lost without its leader. No matter what the cost,
he would have to return home. The French ambassadors, with nominal
cooperation by the King, concluded the harsh Treaty of Madrid. He signed
it in January 1526, declaring that the word and signature of an
imprisoned knight were valueless and that it was beyond his power to
dismember his kingdom. Still bedridden, he was betrothed by proxy to
Eleonora, widow of the King of Portugal and sister of his jailer. The
wedding was to seal the reconciliation of the two rulers and was to
follow execution of the treaty. As a last condition, Francis had to
deliver his two eldest sons, seven and eight years old, as hostages.
The surrendered provinces refused to divorce themselves from France.
The Emperor, furious with the perjured King, held the children prisoner
for four years. His army plundered Italy and captured Pope Clement VII.
Francis could not openly engage in the war that was again flaring up
everywhere against Charles V. Doomed to disavow his promises to his
secret allies, he fled from their envoys, either going on hunting trips
from forest to forest or travelling around the country, building
fairylike castles that he occupied only fleetingly and founding the free
and secular Collège de France. Anne, duchesse d’Étampes, “the most
beautiful of learned ladies, and the most learned of beautiful ladies,”
replaced Madame de Châteaubriant, more as a companion than mistress.
Their raging hatred impelled Charles and Francis to challenge each
other to a duel, which was, however, prevented. During one of the King’s
relapses, his mother reached an agreement with Margaret of Austria, the
Emperor’s aunt, to stop this deadly struggle. The ensuing Treaty of
Cambrai softened that of Madrid. In order to get his children back,
Francis had to abandon his allies, give up Italy, and pay 2,000,000 gold
crowns. His foolish expenditures had emptied the treasury, and the
ransom was collected only with difficulty. Finally, however, the little
princes were able to attend their father’s political marriage to
Eleonora in 1530.
In 1531 the King’s mother succumbed to the plague. Marguerite, having
married the King of Navarre, lived at some distance. The King, grown
tragically old, in 1533 presided over the marriage of his second son,
Henry, to Catherine de Médicis, the niece of Clement VII.
When religious strife broke out in France, the King—tolerant, an
epicurean, an admirer of the Dutch Humanist Erasmus, and patron of the
great satirist Rabelais, as well as a reader of Philipp Melanchthon, the
Reformer—tried to moderate the growing fanaticism. Both his sister and
his mistress supported the Reformation, whereas his ministers were
zealous Catholics. But the Reformers were considered republicans, and
the burnings at the stake began. For five years he delayed the
extermination of the Waldensian sect, only signing the order without
reading it when on his deathbed.
The war with Charles V was resumed in 1536. Bereavements within the
family came in quick succession. The Dauphin died at the age of
18—poisoned by Charles V, it was believed. The third son, the most
dearly loved, died of the plague. One of Francis’ last diplomatic
achievements was an alliance with the Turks against the Emperor.
Henry VIII, by turns friend or enemy, died in January 1547. Francis,
younger by two years, still had time to found the port of Le Hâvre, to
send Jacques Cartier to Canada, to reform the judicial system, and to
decree the use of French in all legal documents.
Wasting away with fever, dying, he wandered from castle to castle,
carried on a litter. Finally, on March 31, 1547, the knight-king died.
Notwithstanding the personal afflictions of the last 20 years of his
life, Francis was to his countrymen and to the succeeding generation le
grand roi François.