Francis I

Francis I (1494-1547) was king of France from 1515 to 1547. He continued the consolidation of monarchical authority and the expansionist foreign policy of his predecessors. He supported humanist learning and was a patron of the arts.

Born on Sept. 12, 1494, at the château of Cognac, Francis I was the son of Charles, Comte d'Angoulême, a member of the house of Orléans. Francis' mother was Louise of Savoy, who descended from a younger branch of the ruling house of Savoy and from the French noble house of Bourbon.

Francis was less than 2 years old when his father died and only 4 years old when he became heir apparent to the throne. He grew up as a ward of Louis XII. His education, which was primarily a training in arms, was supervised by Cardinal Georges d'Amboise, the most important councilor of Louis XII. The marriage of Francis to Claudia, daughter of Louis XII, was also arranged by the King. Francis' closest personal associations during his youth were with his mother and his sister Marguerite, the future queen of Navarre. Francis never outgrew his close relationship with the two women, and even after his accession to the throne he was influenced by them.

Rivalry with Charles V

The first major project undertaken by Francis I after he came to the throne in 1515 was the reconquest of the duchy of Milan. After defeating the Swiss at Marignano (1515) and taking Milan, Francis set out to assure the permanency of the French preponderance in northern Italy by signing treaties with the Pope, the Swiss Confederation, the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I, and Maximilian's grandson Archduke Charles, ruler of the Netherlands and heir apparent to the kingdom of Aragon.

The treaties which Francis made with these individuals had barely been signed when the emperor Maximilian died. Francis I presented himself as a candidate for the imperial throne (it was an elective monarchy). But Archduke Charles, now king of Aragon and Castile, was elected Emperor Charles V in 1519. This election destroyed the settlement reached after Marignano and reopened the old rivalry of France and Aragon. Francis was now virtually encircled by territories belonging to his chief rival for influence in Italy (Charles V ruled Spain, the Low Countries, the Holy Roman Empire, and Franche-Comté). He was forced to embark upon new diplomatic initiatives. The cornerstones of his anti-imperial policy were alliances with the Lutheran princes of the Holy Roman Empire and with the sultan of Turkey. Francis' policies of keeping Germany disunited and of allying with powers on the eastern flank of Germany would remain basic elements of French policy in Europe for centuries.

Four times (1522, 1527, 1536, and 1542) Francis went to war against Charles V, but at the end of their last encounter Francis had proved himself no better at keeping his Italian conquests than his predecessors had been. Milan was lost in 1522, and his attempt to regain it in 1525 ended in the disastrous defeat at Pavia. The French army was slaughtered, and Francis was taken prisoner by the Emperor. France itself was periodically invaded by the imperial armies during the wars. The two territorial acquisitions that Francis retained when the wars ceased following the Peace of Crépy (1544) were Savoy and Piedmont.

Cultural Activities

The rivalry of Francis I with his contemporary sovereigns also extended into the realm of learning and the arts. He retained the leading humanist scholars Jacques Lefèvre d'Étaples and Guillaume Budé and the poet Clément Marot in his service. Lefèvre, who acted as a spiritual councilor to the King's sister Marguerite, supervised the education of two of the King's sons, and Budé was instrumental in founding the Collège de France (1529-1530). The King also took steps to improve the royal library. The library was essentially a manuscript collection, but in 1536 and 1537 Francis ordered that henceforth a copy of all books printed in his realm be sent to it.

Francis derived more pleasure from, and certainly spent more money on, the arts than on the new learning. He commissioned and collected paintings by the great masters of Italy, but he was devoted most of all to architecture. He added a new wing to the château of Blois and created a wholly new château at Chambord. He carried out extensive remodeling at the château of Fontainebleau and at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and built a completely new château at Villers-Cotterets and another, now destroyed, just west of Paris in the Bois de Boulogne (the château of Madrid). He also commissioned the rebuilding of the Paris city hall.

Francis employed several Italian artists on these and other artistic projects. While the contributions of several, like Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, and Benvenuto Cellini, were few and their influence ephemeral, some, like Il Rosso and Francesco Primaticcio, who created the distinctive decoration at Fontainebleau, and Sebastiano Serlio, an architect and architectural writer, made lasting contributions to Renaissance art in France.

Reformation in France

Francis' attitude toward the growth of Protestantism was determined in part by his concern to play the role of protector of the new learning and in part by his foreign policy, both of which made him less anxious to persecute religious reformers and innovators than his theologians and judges would have liked. Because the educational and moral reform programs of the humanists made them appear to be religious innovators, Francis' support of the new learning made it seem that he favored some degree of religious innovation. Moreover, his sister Marguerite was very interested in the program of Christian renewal put forth by humanists such as Lefèvre d'Étaples, and she supported a number of them at her court.

But, although he was willing to allow the humanists to publicize their program, Francis I had no intention of actually supporting the establishment of Lutheranism in France. The French Church was already institutionally very much under his control as a result of the Concordat of Bologna, a bilateral accord he reached with the Pope in 1515. In return for disavowing formally the theory that an ecumenical council of the Church was superior to the Pope and for allowing the Pope a nominal role in the administration of the French Church, Francis obtained a formal statement guaranteeing his right to nominate the holders of the most important benefices in France (archbishops, bishops, and abbots), to tax the clergy, and to limit drastically the jurisdiction of Roman courts over French subjects.

The threat that Lutheranism posed to civil society and to traditional religious practice was clear in the 1520s, but Francis refrained from actively persecuting Protestants until the late 1530s. This course was in large measure imposed by his policy toward Charles V. Through most of the 1530s Francis was allied with the German Protestant princes, and he therefore could not persecute Protestants in France. Only once in this period did he turn sharply against the Protestants. On the night of Oct. 17-18, 1534, placards attacking the Mass were put up all over France, even upon the door to the King's bedchamber. This provocation led to a brief persecution of suspected Lutherans.

But when Francis changed his foreign policy and tried in 1538 to reach an accord with Charles V, persecution of Protestantism in France began more earnestly. The Edict of Fontainebleau (1540) brought the full machinery of royal government into action against suspected heretics. A second reversal in his foreign policy that reopened the alliance with the German Protestant princes in the early 1540s slowed the persecutions, but they began again after the accord with the Emperor reached in the Peace of Crépy (1544).

Internal Administration

The machinery of royal government was strengthened and extended in a number of different ways by this absolutist ruler, ably assisted by his equally tough-minded chancellor, Antoine du Prat. The Concordat of Bologna was one of the most important of their measures directed to this end. In this reign the last of the great semi-independent princely appanages, the duchy of Bourbon, was extinguished by a virtual act of confiscation that disinherited Charles de Bourbon (1523). The duchy of Brittany, administered separately by the first wife of Francis I, Queen Claudia, was brought under the direct administrative control of the King in 1535. Following a policy employed by his predecessors, Francis I also extended French administrative institutions into the territories he added to the realm.

The extent of the intrusion of the central administration into local society during this reign is best exemplified by the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterets (1539), in which the King commanded each parish priest to keep a record of all births, deaths, dowries, wills, and other significant exchanges of property. The clergy was taxed more regularly and more heavily than ever before, and the sale of government offices, once a private affair, was now conducted under the auspices of royal officials for the profit of the royal treasury. The first experiment in public credit, interest-bearing loans to the King, called rentes, which were guaranteed by the properties and revenues of the towns of France, was introduced in this reign. But the attempt to centralize the administration of all royal revenue, carried out with ruthlessness in 1522 and 1523, proved unsuccessful, and the collection and disbursement of the King's income remained a local operation.

As might be expected, there was resistance to some of the King's authoritarian policies and the procedures used to implement them. Constable Bourbon tried unsuccessfully to organize a revolt of the nobility, but throughout Francis' reign the nobility remained surprisingly quiet. In the early part of his reign, Francis faced opposition from within his administration. The Parlement of Paris resisted stoutly his new financial measures (especially the sale of offices), his protection of the religious innovators, and, above all, the Concordat of Bologna. The captivity of the King after the defeat at Pavia gave the Parlement an opportunity to demand reforms, but the judges had no real power behind them and Francis silenced them with his characteristic firmness when he returned from captivity. After that, with the exception of a tax rebellion in the west (1542), the internal politics of the reign consisted of little more than the rise and disgrace of different personages at the royal court.

Further Reading on Francis I

The best introduction to the reign of Francis I is the short pamphlet of R. J. Knecht, Francis I and Absolute Monarchy (1969). Andrew C. P. Haggard, Two Great Rivals (François I and Charles V) and the Women Who Influenced Them (1910), and Francis Hackett, Francis the First (1935), are the only biographies, neither of which is scholarly. Dorothy M. Mayer, The Great Regent: Louise of Savoy, 1476-1531 (1966), is a study of the King's mother and covers the early part of his life and reign. Other biographies of persons close to the King are Martha W. Freer, The Life of Marguerite of Angoulême (2 vols., 1854), and Christopher Hare (pseud. for Mrs. Marion Andrews), Charles de Bourbon: High Constable of France, "The Great Condottiere" (1911).

Information concerning the military and diplomatic activities of Francis I is in Karl Brandi, The Emperor Charles V: The Growth and Destiny of a Man and of a World Empire (1937; trans. 1939); Charles W. C. Oman, A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century (1937); Jean Giono, The Battle of Pavia (1963; trans. 1965); and Joycelyne G. Russell, The Field of Cloth of Gold: Men and Manners in 1520 (1969).

Henry M. Baird, History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France (2 vols., 1879), traces the beginnings of French Protestantism. On the Renaissance in France during Francis' reign see Arthur Tilley, The Literature of the French Renaissance (1885; 2 vols., 1904); Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1953); and Anne Denieul-Cormier, The Renaissance in France, 1488-1559 (1969). William L. Wiley, The Gentleman of Renaissance France (1954), illustrates several aspects of the life of the court of Francis I.

Additional Biography Sources

Knecht, R. J. (Robert Jean), Francis I, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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