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Francis I 1494–1547 King of France

Francis I
1494–1547
King of France

Francis I of France spent much of his reign on the battlefield, but he is primarily remembered for his contributions to the cultural life of the nation. The king played a major role in the development of the French Renaissance. He supported artists, assembled an impressive collection of paintings, built Italian-style palaces, and encouraged humanist* learning. During the 1500s he was commonly referred to as "the great king Francis."

A member of the Valois dynasty, Francis I was the son of Charles, count of Angoulême. He took the French throne on January 1, 1515, after the death of his cousin Louis XII. The year before, Francis had wed Louis's daughter, Claude. Francis was married a second time, in 1530, to Eleanor of Portugal, the sister of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor*.

Primarily a man of action, Francis excelled in various sports and spent much of his time hunting. He and his royal court often traveled from town to town, enjoying various festivities given in his honor by local townspeople. Francis displayed a similar restlessness in his personal relationships. Unfaithful in marriage, he enjoyed the company of many mistresses.


War and Politics. Francis, the "knight-king," spent much of his reign fighting. In 1515 he invaded the Italian duchy* of Milan, which he claimed through a line of descent from the daughter of a Milanese duke. After defeating the army of the ruling duke, Maximilian Sforza, Francis took over the duchy. In 1519 he put himself forward as a candidate for Holy Roman Emperor. However, the German rulers and church officials who elected the emperor chose Charles of Habsburg, who already ruled Spain and the Netherlands.

As emperor, Charles V became the most powerful ruler in Christian Europe and a lifelong enemy of the French king. War broke out between the two rulers in 1521. It ended with the king's loss of Milan and his defeat and capture at the Italian town of Pavia in 1525. Francis remained a prisoner in Spain until 1526, when he agreed to surrender the duchy of Burgundy to the emperor. However, the French king did not fulfill his pledge. This resulted in a new round of hostilities that lasted until the end of his reign.

Francis tried to find allies in his struggle against the emperor. He met with English king Henry VIII, but Henry eventually sided with the emperor. Francis also sought help from the papacy* and plotted with German Protestant princes and the Ottoman Turks*. Many Christians in Europe were shocked when a combined French-Turkish fleet attacked the port of Nice, and the French king allowed the Turkish pirate Barbarossa to use the port of Toulouse in France as a base.

Francis I wanted to control the nation's political and religious affairs. In 1516 he came to an agreement with the pope, the Concordat of Bologna, that allowed the crown to make all major appointments to ecclesiastical* offices in France. Both the Parlement of Paris, the highest court of law, and the University of Paris opposed this arrangement, which put too much power in the king's hands. Francis overruled their objections. Although the king generally respected local privileges and customs handed down from the Middle Ages, he made most decisions himself, assisted by an advisory council.

Two major weaknesses of Francis's reign were the country's tax system and its financial administration, both plagued by corruption and inefficiency. Revenue fell far short of the king's ever-growing military needs, and Francis had to borrow from foreign bankers to pay for his wars and other projects. He tried to improve the financial system by creating a central treasury and prosecuting corrupt bankers. Another domestic problem that Francis faced was the growth of Protestant heresy*. After 1534, the king supported repressive measures against Protestants, including a massacre of heretics in 1545.


The Renaissance King. Francis I was a great patron* of Renaissance architecture and art. During his reign, he built or rebuilt numerous châteaus, including the Louvre in Paris and the magnificent royal residence at Fontainebleau. The king invited the Italian master Leonardo da Vinci to settle in France, and the artist spent his last years there. Francis also collected art works by Renaissance masters such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and Benvenuto Cellini. His collection of art, including a famous portrait of the king by Titian, became the core of the Louvre museum.

Francis I also was an important patron of humanist scholarship. He had great respect for scholars and writers and included some in his royal court. In 1530 he created the foundation of what later became the Collège de France, a school in Paris for humanistic studies. A lover of books, Francis enlarged the libraries of his royal residences at Blois and Fontainebleau and hired agents in Italy and elsewhere to obtain precious manuscripts of ancient Greece and Rome. The combined libraries of the king eventually formed the basis of the present National Library in Paris.

(See alsoArt in France; Châteaus and Villas; France; Libraries; Ottoman Empire. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* duchy

territory ruled by a duke or duchess

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* ecclesiastical

relating to a church

* heresy

belief that is contrary to the doctrine of an established church

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

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