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 imagination.
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.
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 independent.
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 court.
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.
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.
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.
par Marcelle Vioux