Francis I

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© Bob Denton 2014

Francis I   1515 – 1547

François (Francis) becoming king was a most unlikely turn of events.  His third cousin, Charles VIII, died without any issue when Francis was just four years old. His father’s cousin, Louis XII, became ill in 1505 and had no male heir; of course Salic Law meant his daughters could not inherit the throne.

Louis therefore arranged for Francis to marry his daughter, Claude, who was also the heiress to the Duchy of Brittany. Francis married his second cousin in 1514 they would have seven children. When Louis died the next year, Francis succeeded him, he was twenty-one years old.

Francis founded the Valois–Angoulême Branch of the House of Valois, which ruled for much of the sixteenth century. Francis was educated by his mother and his tutors who introduced him to the notions arriving in France from Italy. These were the artistic movements of the Italian Renaissance and humanism, a non-religious set of beliefs that focuses instead on human nature, and its education of what we today call the humanities – philosophy, history, logic, grammar…

He became known as François I le Père et Restaurateur des Lettres (Francis I Father and Restorer of Letters) because he would promote the widespread use of a standardised French language in state documents and procedures.

Another sobriquet was le Roi-Chevalier (the Knight-King) earned from his direct participation in battles against his reign-long opponents Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. There was some inevitability about this animosity given that Charles’ territories surrounded France from all sides.

He also had the rather unkind epithet as François au Grand Nez (Francis of the Big Nose).

The Louvre – the Paris landmark and museum derives from way back in 1190. Paris had been the largest city in Europe and a rampart was built around it to secure it from the Anglo-Norman threat of the time. Philippe Auguste II built a fortress at its heart which became known as the Louvre, a fortress and arsenal. It had approximately a 70m x 70m wall with bastions and at its heart was the Grosse Tour, 30 metres tall.

By the 14th century a new earthen rampart was built around the expanding city and the Louvre lost its defensive role. In 1364 the castle began to be redeveloped as a royal palace and residence.

When Francis I decided he would live in Paris he had the Grosse Tour demolished and began to replace the medieval fortress with a Renaissance Palace. The later contributions to the building work by Louis XIII (his Grand Dessein) and Louis XIV were perhaps the most significant.

Intriguingly ‘louvre’ apparently means nothing in French, some suggest it comes from L’Ouevre, meaning masterpiece, though the originally fortress that earned the name was hardly that. The English usage of the word, as a fixed or moveable slatted window or door that admits air and light, may derive from the Old French for a skylight, or Middle Dutch for a gallery.


Francis would enthusiastically support and promote  the Renaissance arts. Prior to Francis’ time the royal palaces in France had been decorated quite sparsely. They displayed paintings but they had not espoused sculpture, tapestries and other adornment. Francis changed all of that and much that is displayed in the Louvre today can be traced back to his initiatives.

Francis was also a patron of many new constructions (other than the Louvre) in Paris He also funded the building of the Paris Hôtel de Ville. Outside the city he continued the work on the Château d’Amboise, rebuilt the Château de Blois and Château de St-Germain-en-Laye, started work on the magnificent Château de Chambord and the Château de Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne. But perhaps the most significant construction of his time was the Château de Fontainebleau (where he promptly installed his mistress Anne, Duchess of Étampes.

In 1517 he founded a new port, Le Havre, its construction was vital as the old ports of Honfleur and Harfleur were badly affected by silting. It was named Franciscopolis after the king but that name did not survive him. By 1524 he had built a new fort, the Tour Royale, at the entrance to Toulon harbour.

Da Vinci and others

Francis encouraged many of the great artists of his time. While meeting with Pope Leo X in Bologna he commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to produce an early automaton. Then in 1516 he lured him to live in France giving him a manor house close to the king’s Château d’Amboise and a lucrative pension.

Leonardo would die at the Clos Lucé three years later having added little to his canon of work, but he had brought the La Joconde ( jolly or jovial), the Mona Lisa, with him and reputedly continued to work on it at the manor house. Francis purchased the work for 4,000 écus and placed it at Fontainebleau; much later it was moved to Versailles. It was moved to the Louvre after the French Revolution. It was loaned to Napoleon and displayed in his bedroom for a time before going back to the Louvre where it is the gallery’s major attraction today. (Though it was moved off to a more secure place during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 and during World War II.)

In 1516 the artist Andrea del Sarto had a Pietà and a Madonna purchased by the French court. He was invited to visit the court in 1518 which he did. But his wife demanded his return, the king gave him funds to acquire works of art for him back in Italy. He is said to have spent the money to buy a house in Florence and never returned. He died of the Bubonic Plague in around 1530.

Rosso Fiorentino had been trained by del Sarto, then moved to Rome where he saw the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, but he lost everything in the 1527 sack of Rome. He excaped to France where he worked at Fontainebleau, founding the first Ecole de Fontainebleau in 1531. He was joined there by other Italian painters – Niccolò dell’Abbate, Luca Penni and Francesco Primaticcio – by the Italian sculptor and etcher Juste de Juste and by Otalian furniture-maker Francesco Scibec da Carpi. Fiorentino spent much of his life at the palace, he died there, Primaticcio succeeded in his role. Their style and approach became very influential around Europe. Their erotic and grotesque images, their putti (cherub like figures) and use of allegorical and mythological icons were much copied.

Benvenuto Cellini was an Italian goldsmith and sculptor who worked at Fontainebleau for Francis, but he fell out with the duchesse d’Étampes, the king’s mistress. After an uncomfortable five years he returned to Florence.

Francis patronised many writers and established a royal library. The king employed agents to acquire works of art, books and manuscripts in Italy. The humanist Guillaume Budé was appointed as the chief librarian, he expanded its collection which in turn attracted many great scholars from around the world. In 1537 he issued the Ordonnance de Montpellier, which ensured the library must receive a copy of every book that was published or sold in France.

Francis’ taste was broad and he supported François Rabelais in his grotesque and bawdy writing, After Francis’ death the establishment were scathing about Rabelais, though his work would survive this such that today he is hailed as a significant creator of European literature.

Militarily Francis’ reign could not have started more propitiously. In 1515 he marched into Italy to regain his rights in Lombardy and recorded a significant victory at the Battle of Marignano, then marched on to seize Milan.

He advanced against the Papal States and reached an accommodation with Pope Leo, then with the Holy Roman Empire. Things in Italy settled down, but would last only for four years. A peace treaty was signed in 1514 between France and England to give Francis’ realm a period of calm.

The death of Maximilian the Holy Roman Emperor in early 1519 created a flurry of applications to succeed him. Francis applied, as did Charles the Duke of Burgundy and recently crowned king of Spain. Henry VIII also applied but was considered the rank outsider.

France and the Holy Roman Empire had once been joined back in Carolingian times. Both Francis and Charles attempted to bribe the seven electors from Bohemia, Brandenburg, Cologne, Mainz, the Palatinate and Trier. Charles had the greater resources, his brother-in-law was one of the electors, the king of Bohemia. Francis secured the support of Trier and Brandenburg wavered but in the end Charles was elected unanimously.

Charles had been the Lord of the Netherlands from 1506, he had been Charles I of Spain since 1516, now he was elected as Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. At a stroke Francis became the meat in a threatening Habsburg sandwich.

Worse Pope Leo X soon allied with Charles as a reaction to the teachings of Martin Luther.

King Henry VIII (of England)

In 1520 Francis met up with King Henry VIII of England at Camp du Drap d’Or (Field of the Cloth of Gold), near Calais. The meeting lasted over two weeks with both sides seeking to outdo the other.

Henry had a 10,000 sq m ‘palace’ built with a brick base and the canvas above this was painted to look like brick, the slanting roof painted grey to look like slate. Henry VIII brought with him two monkeys that were covered in gold leaf as a spectacle.

The two king’s retinues used bright tents (2,800 of them!) and wore flamboyant clothing as they played games, listened to music and jousted; both kings taking part In the jousting. Francis and Henry wrestled against each other with Henry promptly losing this bout. The name was derived from the extensive use of cloth of gold.

Cardinal Wolsey and others worked for a further four years to propose the Treaty of London, a non-aggression pact signed between the major powers of Europe. However when Wolsey signed an alliance with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, the peace was over and the Italian War of 1521-6 soon followed.

This new ‘Italian’ outbreak started with two campaigns that were outside Italy, first a Franco-Navarrese attempt to take back Navarre form Habsburg Spain, then a French incursion in to the Low Countries. The move against Navarre was halted and the French pushed back to the Pyrenees. The Habsburg force in the Low Countries was halted in the north.

Charles, the Pope and Henry VIII signed an alliance against France. Francis allied with Venice against them. By 1522 the Papal and Habsburg forces had driven France from Lombardy. Venice sued the allies for peace, In 1523 France was under attack in the south-east from forces entering its territory from Italy and Henry VIII again invaded in the north.

Francis had sought other alliances primarily against the Holy Roman Empire, he sent ambassadors to Poland and Hungary in the 1520s. Achieving an agreement with Sigismund I of Poland in 1524.

It wasn’t all battles. In 1524 Francis co-sponsored, with the city of Lyon, an expedition led by Giovanni da Verrazzano. This was another attempt to find a westerly route to Cathay (China). He departed from Dieppe and sailed along the coast of today’s Carolinas and entered what we know as New York Bay. He called the site of today’s Big Apple as Nouvelle-Angoulême (Francis was from the Valois–Angoulême branch of the House of Valois).

At the time Spain had its New Spain (today’s Mexico) to the south and England had discovered Newfoundland to the north. Verrazzano proposed the area he travelled should be named as either Francesca or Nova Gallia. Francis was moved to consider the establishment of French colonies in the New World, though he was not as committed as Portugal and Spain to empire building.

In 1524 Francis failed again in an attempt to seize Lombardy and the Bourbons used the opportunity to invade Provence. That year his recently completed Tour Royale in Toulon was sold by its commander to the army of the Holy Roman Empire and the city surrendered to that force.

In 1525 Francis led an attempt to seize Milan but was defeated by a Spanish-Imperial army at the Battle of Pavlia in Piedmont. Francis had his horse wounded in the battle and this led to his capture and imprisonment.

While he was imprisoned Francis’ mother, Louise of Savoy, sent two separate ambassadors to the Ottoman court of Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman issued threats against Charles unless he released Francis. When nothing happened he invaded Hungary in 1526 and defeated King Louis II of Hungary and Bohemia at the Battle of Mohács. This led to the partitioning of Hungary between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs.

Francis to get his release was forced to sign the Treaty of Madrid in 1526, this agreed to France giving up Provence and the Charolais region to the Holy Roman Empire, he had to recognise the independence of Burgundy and worse he had to give up his ambitions in Milan and Naples.

By 1527 he had also agreed the Hampton Court Palace treaty with the English. But then he promptly announced that he would not be bound by the Treaty of Madrid, this gained Papal approval. Pope Clement VII was becoming concerned by the size of the Habsburg territories and proposed an alliance of himself, England and France against Charles. Henry had gained nothing in the Treaty of Madrid so was happy to join with them.

In May 1527 Francis and the Pope declared the War of the League of Cognac, Henry joined later, but their efforts to recover territory lost by France was fruitless.

France was also beginning to explore the Orient. A ship-owner Jean Ango in Rouen despatched expeditions to Brazil and North America and down the west coast of Africa. In July 1529 a ship from Rouen, owned by Jean Ango, was reported by the Portuguese to have reached the Indian city of Diu. This was a clear threat to their monopoly in the spice trade.

Dieppe born navigator and cartographer Jean Parmentier and his brother Raoul, sailed two ships owned by Ango all the way to Sumatra, though they failed to negotiate the expected spices. Many including the two Parmentier brothers became sick and died.

Dieppe Maps – the survivors of the Sumatra expedition set off in 1530 and made it home where their exploits inspired the creation of Dieppe maps. These large hand-produced maps were in great demand for the next twenty years creating a school of cartographers based in Dieppe.

The use of Portuguese terms suggests that they had acquired Portuguese rutters, or written navigational notes/sketches. They were drawn with compass roses and other illustrative devices so that they were largely for decoration rather than maritime use.

In 1533 Francis sent an ambassador to Morocco where a trading treaty was signed with the ruler of Fez, Ahmed ben Mohammed.

[Affair of the Placards.]

Suleiman the Magnificent

Francis negotiated an alliance with the Ottoman leader Suleiman the Magnificent in 1536. For a Christian king to ally with a Muslim Ottoman was scandalous for the time, termed as the impious alliance, Nonetheless the alliance would stand for 250 years (until Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign).

Suleiman had expanded his Empire as far as Serbia in eastern Europe and so was cheek-by-jowl with Francis’s enemy Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.

Forward to Henry II – Back to Louis XII
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014