Who was Francis I?

Anyone who’s a fan of fine wine knows that some of the best vineyards in the world are located in France. But did you know that a French king actually helped put those vineyards on the map? Meet Francis I, the 16th-century king of France who is considered by many to be the country’s very first oenophile. Here’s a quick look at his life and legacy.

Born in 1494, Francis I was the son of Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany. He ascended to the throne in 1515 after the untimely death of his cousin and predecessor, Louis XII. As king, Francis was known for his ambition, his extravagance, and—most importantly for our purposes—his love of all things related to wine and winemaking. In fact, it was during Francis’ reign that some of France’s most celebrated vineyards were first planted.

Under Francis’ direction, French winemakers began experimenting with new grape varietals and ways of cultivating vines. He also built several lavish chateaus throughout the country, including the famous Chateau de Chenonceau near Tours (which just so happens to be one of my favorite vineyards in France). In addition, Francis helped spread the popularity of wine beyond the upper echelons of French society; he is even credited with popularizing the drinking of white wine among commoners.

Grand culverin of Francis I

Figure 0.1 Grand culverin of Francis I. A gift to his Ottoman allies recovered in Algiers, 1830

The invasion of the duchy of Milan was Francis I’s first major project after ascending to the throne in 1515 [1]. He managed to conquer Milan from the Swiss that same year. He quickly began signing treaties with nearby leaders to ensure neighboring powers recognized France’s control over Milan. However, these treaties soon began falling apart.

King Francis fought King Charles V of the Habsburg Monarchy four different times (1522, 1527, 1536, and 1542). However, he was met with little success. Milan was taken by Charles V in 1522. And Francis’ attempt to reclaim it in 1525 resulted in a humiliating defeat at Pavia. The French army was destroyed, and the Emperor imprisoned Francis. During the wars, imperial armies invaded France on a regular basis. After the Peace Treaty of Crépy was signed in 1544, France and Francis had only gained two territories from all the fighting: Savoy and Piedmont.

Francis 1

This absolutist ruler strengthened and extended the system of royal government in a variety of ways, helped by his equally difficult chancellor, Antoine du Prat. One of the most influential measures they created was The Bologna Concordat. During this time, Francis ended the last of the great semi-independent princely appanages, Bourbon, and took this area under his control. In 1535, the Duchy of Brittany, which had been administered separately by Francis I’s first wife, Queen Claude, was taken under the administrative control of the king. Following his forefathers’ footsteps, Francis I extended French administrative frameworks into the territories he acquired in the realm.

Huge sums of money were invested into new constructions by Francis. He completed the former king’s project of Château d’Amboise and then started his own project of refurbishing, Château de Blois. Quickly after becoming king, Francis began work on the spectacular Château de Chambord. The work was inspired by the Italian Renaissance, and myth says Leonardo da Vinci made the designs himself. Francis reconstructed the Louvre Palace, changing it from a medieval fortification into a Renaissance masterpiece.

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Additionally, he funded the construction of a New City Hall (the Hôtel de Ville) in Paris, which gave him control over the design planning. In the Bois de Boulogne, he built the Château de Madrid and renovated the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The restoration and extension of the Château de Fontainebleau, which swiftly became his beloved place of residence and also the home of his legal mistress, Anne, Duchess of Étampes, was the largest of Francis’ building projects.

Sadly, Francis’ reign came to an end in 1547 when he was captured by Spanish forces during the Franco-Italian War and held prisoner for nearly a year before being ransomed back to France. He died just two years later, at the age of 54. But even in death, Francis’ love for wine lived on; legend has it that he requested that six barrels filled with his favorite Beaujolais be buried with him when he died.

This Day in Wine History

March 31, 1547: Francis died on his son’s 28th birthday at the Château de Rambouillet. He was buried alongside his first wife, Claude, Duchess of Brittany, in Saint-Denis Basilica. His son, Henry II, became the next king.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Francis I and Sixteenth-Century France (Variorum Collected Studies) Francis I- The Maker of Modern France


[1] Rickard, J (16 September 2014), Francis I’s First Invasion of Italy, 1515-16 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_francis_I_first_italy_1515.html


Categories: 1501 CE to 1700 CE, Old World, This Day in Wine History | Articles, Wine and WarTags: , , , By Published On: September 1, 2022Last Updated: February 21, 2024

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