Francis I of France

Francis I (September 12, 1494 – March 31, 1547), was crowned King of France in 1515 in the cathedral at Reims and reigned until 1547.

Francis I is considered to be France's first Renaissance monarch. His reign saw France make immense cultural advances. He was a contemporary of King Henry VIII of England and of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, his great rivals.

Early life

Francis I was born at Cognac, Charente, the son of Charles d'Angoulême (1459 – January 1 1496), and of Louise of Savoy (September 11 1476September 22 1531). His father, Charles d'Angoulême, was the first cousin of King Louis XII. In 1498, the four-year-old Francis, already Count of Angoulême, was created Duke of Valois. He was the heir presumptive of Louis XII, who did not succeed in siring sons with any of his three wives. Young Francis was, by instigation of King Louis, in 1506 betrothed and on 18 May 1514 married, to Claude of France (1499-1524), the daughter of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany and heiress of Brittany. Because of the Salic Law that stated that women could not inherit the throne of France, the throne passed to Francis I at the death of Louis XII, as he was a male-line great-great-grandson of Charles V of France and the descendant of the eldest surviving male line of the Capetian Dynasty. Claude of France became queen consort.

When young Francis ascended the throne in 1515, he was already a king with unprecedented humanist credentials. While his two predecessors, Charles VIII and Louis XII, had spent much of their reigns concerned with Italy they did not much embrace the new intellectual movements coming out of it. Both monarchs continued in the same patterns of behavior that had dominated the French monarchy for centuries. They are considered the last of the medieval French monarchs, but they did lay the groundwork for the Renaissance to come into full swing in France.

Contact between the French and Italians in the long running series of wars under Charles and Louis had brought new ideas to France by the time the young Francis was receiving his education. Thus a number of his tutors, such as Desmoulins, his Latin instructor, and Christophe de Longueil were schooled in the new ways of thinking and they attempted to imbue Francis with it. Francis's mother also had a great interest in Renaissance art, which she passed down to her son. One certainly cannot say that Francis received a humanist education; most of his teachers had not yet been affected by the Renaissance. One can, however, state that he clearly received an education more oriented towards humanism than any previous French king.


Patron of the Arts

By the time Francis ascended the throne in 1515 the Renaissance had clearly arrived in France, and Francis was an important supporter of the change. Francis became a major patron of the arts. He lent his support to many of the greatest artists of his time and encouraged them to come to France. Some did work for him, including such greats as Andrea del Sarto, and Leonardo da Vinci, whom Francis convinced to leave Italy in the last part of his life. While Leonardo did little painting in his years in France, he brought with him many of his great works, such as the Mona Lisa, and these stayed in France upon his death.

Other major artists whom Francis employed include the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, and the painters Rosso, Romano and Primaticcio, all of whom were heavily employed in decorating Francis's various palaces and exceedingly loyal. Francis employed a number of agents in Italy who endeavoured to procure artworks by Italian masters such as Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael and ship them to France. These agents had some notable successes, even if plans to try to move Leonardo's Last Supper to France proved impractical. When Francis ascended the throne the royal palaces were decorated with only a scattering of great paintings, and not a single piece of sculpture either ancient or modern. It is during Francis' reign that the magnificent art collection of the French kings that can still be seen in the Louvre was truly begun.

Man of letters

Francis was also renowned as a man of letters. When Francis comes up in a conversation among characters in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, it is as the great hope to bring culture to the war-obsessed French nation. Not only did Francis support a number of major writers of the period, he was a poet himself, if not one of immense quality. Francis worked hard at improving the royal library. He appointed the great French humanist Guillaume Budé as chief librarian, and began to expand the collection. Francis employed agents in Italy looking for rare books and manuscripts, just as he had looking for art works. During his reign the size of the library increased greatly. Not only did Francis expand the library, there is also, according to Knecht, evidence that he read the books he bought for it, a much rarer feat in the royal annals. Francis set an important precedent by opening his library to scholars from around the world in order to facilitate the diffusion of knowledge.

In 1537, Francis signed the Ordonnance de Montpellier, decreeing that his library be given a copy of every book to be sold in France.

Francis's older sister, Marguerite (1492 – 1549), Queen of Navarre, was also an accomplished writer, producing the classic, Heptameron.


Francis poured vast amounts of money into new structures. He continued the work of his predecessors on the Château d'Amboise and also started renovations on the Château de Blois. Early in his reign, he also began construction of the magnificent Château de Chambord, inspired by the styles of the Italian renaissance, and perhaps even designed by Leonardo. Francis rebuilt the Louvre, transforming it from a medieval fortress into a building of Renaissance splendour. He financed the building of a new City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) for Paris in order to have control over the building's design. He constructed the Château de Madrid and rebuilt the Château de St-Germain-en-Laye. The largest of Francis's building projects was the reconstruction and expansion of the royal château of Fontainebleau, which quickly became his favourite place of residence, as well as the residence of his official mistress - Anne, duchess of Etampes. Each of Francis's projects was luxuriously decorated both inside and outside. Fontainebleau, for instance, had a gushing fountain in its courtyard where quantities of wine were mixed with the water.

Military action

Militarily and politically, Francis's reign was less successful; he tried and failed to become Holy Roman Emperor, and pursued a series of wars in Italy. (See Italian Wars.) Francis managed to defeat the Swiss at Marignano in 1515, which enabled him to capture the Italian city-state of Milan.

Much of the military activity of Francis's reign was focused on his sworn enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In addition to the Holy Roman Empire, Charles personally ruled Spain, Austria and a number of smaller possessions neighboring France, and was thus a threat to Francis's kingdom. Francis attempted to arrange an alliance with Henry VIII of England. The negotiations took place at the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold of 1520, but ultimately failed. Francis's most devastating defeat occurred at the Battle of Pavia (1525), where he was captured by Charles: Cesare Hercolani hurt his horse and Francis was captured by Spaniards Juan de Urbieta, Diego Dávila and Alonso Pita. For this reason, Hercolani was named "victor of the battle of Pavia". The famous Zuppa alla Pavese, now a renowned recipe was said to have been invented on the spot to feed the captive king right after the battle. Francis was held captive in Madrid and forced to make major concessions to Charles before he was freed. Upon his return to France, however, Francis argued that his agreement with Charles was made under duress, and also claimed that the agreement was void, as his sons had still been taken hostage suggesting his word alone was not trusted, and he repudiated it.

In a watershed moment in European diplomacy, Francis came to an understanding with the Ottoman Empire. No formal treaties with the 'infidel empire' were signed, but high-level meetings between the two powers caused them to collude against Charles V, and in 1543 the two powers even combined for a joint naval assault on Nice.

The New World

In 1524, Francis assisted the citizens of Lyon in financing the expedition of Giovanni da Verrazzano to North America; on this expedition, Verrazzano claimed Newfoundland for the French crown. In 1534, Francis sent Jacques Cartier to explore the St. Lawrence River in Quebec to find certaines îles et pays où l'on dit qu'il se doit trouver grande quantité d'or et autres riches choses ("certain islands and lands where it is said there must be great quantities of gold and other riches"). In 1541, Francis sent Jean-François de la Roque de Roberval to settle Canada and to provide for the spread of "the Holy Catholic faith."

Bureaucratic reform

In 1539, in his castle in Villers-Cotterêts, Francis signed the edict which made French the administrative language of the kingdom, replacing Latin. This same edict required priests to register births, marriages and deaths and to establish a registry office in every parish. This established the first records of vital statistics with filiations available in Europe.


It was during Francis's reign that divisions in the Christian religion in Western Europe erupted. Martin Luther's preaching and writing led to the formation of the Protestant movement which spread through much of Europe, including France.

Initially, under the influence of his beloved sister Marguerite de Navarre, Francis was relatively tolerant of the new movement, and even considered it politically useful, as it caused many German princes to turn against his enemy, Charles V. However, Francis's attitude toward Protestantism changed following the "Affair of the Placards", on the night of October 17, 1534, in which notices appeared on the streets of Paris and other major cities denouncing Mass. A notice was even posted on the door to the king's room, and, it is said, the box in which he kept his handkerchief. Antoine Marcourt, a Protestant pastor, was responsible for the notices.

The most fervent Catholics were outraged by the notice's allegations. Francis himself came to view the movement as a plot against him, and began to persecute its followers. Protestants were jailed and executed. In some areas whole villages were destroyed. Printing was censored and leading Protestants like John Calvin forced into exile. The persecutions soon numbered tens of thousands of homeless people.

Francis died in 1547. It is said that "he died complaining about the weight of a crown that he had first perceived as a gift from God".


Francis's legacy is generally considered a mixed one. He achieved great cultural feats, but they came at the expense of France's economic well being.

The persecution of the Protestants was to lead France into decades of civil war, which did not end until 1598 with the Edict of Nantes.

Francis died at the Château de Rambouillet on his son and heir's 28th birthday, and is interred with his first wife, Claude de France, Duchess of Bretagne, in Saint Denis Basilica. He was succeeded by his son, Henry II.

Marriage and Issue

One alleged out-of-wedlock issue, Henri de la Rue.

On May 18, 1514, Francis married his second cousin Claude, Princess of France (October 13 1499July 20 1524), who was the daughter of Louis XII, King of France and Anne, Duchess of Brittany. The couple had seven children:

Name Birth Death Notes
Louise, Princess of France August 19, 1515 September 21, 1517 Died young. Had no issue.
Charlotte, Princess of France October 23, 1516 September 8, 1524 Died young. Had no issue.
Francis, Dauphin of France February 28, 1518 August 10, 1536 Died young. Had no issue.
Henry II, King of France March 31, 1519 July 10, 1559 Married Catherine de' Medici (1519 - 1589) in 1533. Had issue.
Madeleine, Princess of France August 10, 1520 July 2, 1537 Married James V, King of Scotland (1512 - 1542) in 1537. Had no issue.
Charles of Valois, Duke of Orleans January 22, 1522 September 9, 1545 Died young. Had no issue.
Margaret of France, Duchess of Berry June 5, 1523 September 14, 1574 Married Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy (1528 - 1580) in 1559. Had issue.

On August 7 1530, Francis I married his second wife Eleanor of Austria, a sister of the Emperor Charles V. The couple had no children. During his reign, Francis kept two official mistresses at court. The first was Françoise de Foix, Comtesse de Châteaubriand. In 1526, she was replaced by the blonde-haired, cultured Anne de Pisseleu d'Heilly, Duchesse d'Étampes who wielded far more political power at court than her predecessor had done. Another of his earlier mistresses, was allegedly Mary Boleyn, mistress of King Henry VIII and sister of Henry's future wife, Anne Boleyn.


Francis's ancestors in three generations

Francis I in fiction

The amorous exploits of Francis inspired the 1832 play by Fanny Kemble (1809-1893} Francis the First and the 1832 play by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Le Roi s'amuse ("The King's Amusement") featuring the jester Triboulet, which later inspired the opera of Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901), Rigoletto.

Francis was first played in a George Méliès movie by an unknown actor in 1907, and has also been played by Claude Garry (1910), Aimé Simon-Girard (1937), Sacha Guitry (1937), Gérard Oury (1953), Jean Marais (1955), Pedro Armendáriz (1956), Claude Titre (1962), Bernard Pierre Donnadieu (1990), Timothy West (1998).

Francis was portrayed by Peter Gilmore in the comedy film "Carry on Henry" charting the fictitous 2 extra wives of Henry VIII (including Marie cousin of King Francis).

Francis receives a mention in a minor story in Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy. The narrator claims that the king, wishing to win the favour of Switzerland, offers to the make the country the godmother of his son. When, however, their choice of name conflicts declares war. He's also mentioned in Jean de la Brète's novel Reine - Mon oncle et mon curé, where the main character Reine de Lavalle idolizes him after reading his biography, much to the dismay of the local priest. He often receives mentions in novels on the lives of either of the Boleyn sisters - Mary Boleyn (d. 1543) and her sister, Queen Anne Boleyn (executed 1536), both of whom were for a time educated at his court. Mary had, according to several accounts, been Francis's one-time mistress and Anne had been a favourite of his sister: the novels The Lady in the Tower, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Last Boleyn, Dear Heart, How Like You This? and Mademoiselle Boleyn feature Francis in their story. Francis is also in Diane Haeger's fictional novel "Courtesan" about Diane de Poitiers and Henri II. He has also featured as a recurring character in the Showtime series The Tudors, opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII and Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn. Francis is played by French actor, Emmanuel Leconte.

Samuel Shellabarger's novel The King's Cavalier describes Francis the man, and the cultural and political circumstances of his reign, in some detail.


  • Clough, C.H., "Francis I and the Courtiers of Castiglione’s Courtier." European Studies Review. vol viii, 1978.
  • Denieul-Cormier, Anne. The Renaissance in France. trans. Anne and Christopher Fremantle. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1969.
  • Grant, A.J. The French Monarchy, Volume I. New York: Howard Fertig, 1970.
  • Guy, John. Tudor England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • Jensen, De Lamar. Renaissance Europe. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992.
  • Knecht, R.J. Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Major, J. Russell. From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
  • Seward, Desmond. François I: Prince of the Renaissance. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1973.

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