Francis I (12 September 1494 to 31 March 1547) reigned as King of France from 1515 to 1547. Francis continued the Italian Wars in the same manner as his predecessors. The succession of Charles V to the Burgundian Netherlands, the throne of Spain, and his subsequent election as Holy Roman Emperor surrounded France topographically. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Francis decided to seek the support of Henry VIII of England in his struggle against Imperial hegemony. When that failed, he established a Franco-Ottoman alliance with the Muslim sultan Suleiman the Majestic, which was a controversial move for a Christian king at the time.

Francis was Charles of Orléans’ only son and a great-great-grandson of King Charles V of France. His family was not expected to inherit the throne because his third cousin King Charles VIII and his father’s cousin, the Duke of Orléans, later King Louis XII, were still young at the time of his birth. However, when Charles VIII died childless in 1498, he was succeeded by Louis XII, who had no male heir. Women were barred from acquiring the throne under the Salic law. As a result, in 1498, the four-year-old Francis became France’s presumptive heir to the throne and was bestowed with the title of Duke of Valois.

Ideas arising from the Italian Renaissance were impactful in France during Francis’ education. Some of his tutors, including François Desmoulins de Rochefort (his Latin professor, who was later called Grand Aumônier de France during Francis’ rule) and Christophe de Longueuil (a Brabantian intellectual), were drawn to such new approaches and tried to influence Francis. He eventually became interested in philosophy and theology, as well as art, literature, poetry, and science.

Grand culverin of Francis I

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

After falling ill, Louis XII ordered the marriage of his daughter, Claude, with Francis to take place urgently, but the two were only married through a meeting of nobles. Claude was the Duchy of Brittany’s presumptive heir, Anne of Brittany, by her mother’s side. The marriage did take place on May 18, 1514, following Anne’s death. Louis died on January 1, 1515, and Francis ascended to the throne. On January 25, 1515, he was succeeded to the throne of France in the Cathedral of Reims, with Claude as his queen consort.

The Revolution had arrived in France by the time he ascended the throne in 1515, and Francis became an enthusiastic patron of the arts. At the time of his accession, the royal palaces of France were adorned with only a few great paintings and no sculptures, ancient or modern. The magnificent art collection of the French kings, which can still be seen at the Louvre, was started during Francis’ reign.

The invasion of the duchy of Milan was Francis I’s first major project after ascending to the throne in 1515. After conquering the Swiss at Marignano (1515) and capturing Milan, Francis set out to ensure the French dominance in northern Italy’s future by signing treaties with the Pope, the Swiss Confederation, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and Maximilian’s grandson, Archduke Charles, ruler of the Netherlands and heir apparent to the kingdom of Aragon.

Four times (1522, 1527, 1536, and 1542) Francis went to war against Charles V, but by the end of their last confrontation, Francis had proven himself no better than his predecessors at retaining his Italian conquests. Milan fell to him in 1522, and his effort 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. The two territorial conquests that Francis kept after the peace treaty of Crépy (1544) were Savoy and Piedmont.

This absolutist ruler strengthened and extended the system of royal government in a variety of ways, ably helped by his equally difficult chancellor, Antoine du Prat. The Bologna Concordat was among the most important of their measures to that end. During this reign, the duchy of Bourbon, the last of the great semi-independent princely appanages, was abolished by a virtual act of confiscation that disowned Charles de Bourbon (1523). In 1535, the Duchy of Brittany, which had been administered separately by Francis I’s first wife, Queen Claudia, was taken under the administrative control of the king. Following his forefathers’ footsteps, Francis I extended French administrative frameworks into the territories he acquired into the realm.

Huge sums of money were invested into new constructions by Francis. He completed his predecessors’ work on the Château d’Amboise and began improvements on the Château de Blois. Early in his reign, Charles began work on the spectacular Château de Chambord, which was inspired by the architectural traditions of the Italian Renaissance and was possibly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Francis reconstructed the Louvre Palace, changing it from a medieval fortification into a Renaissance masterpiece. He financed the construction of a New City Hall (the Hôtel de Ville) in Paris in order to have complete control over the design. 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.

Francis died on March 31, 1547, on his son and successor’s 28th birthday, at the Château de Rambouillet. “He died whinging about the load of a throne he had at first regarded as a divine gift,” it is said. In Saint-Denis Basilica, he was buried alongside his first wife, Claude, Duchess of Brittany. Henry II, his son, succeeded him.

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