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Francis I loved the art of painting as well as war

Posted in Art, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty, War on Thursday, 30 January 2014

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This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 534 published on 8 April 1972.

Battle of Pavia,  picture, image, illustration

Francis I of France is captured at the battle of Pavia in 1525, by Tancredi Scarpelli

Few kings in the saga of world royalty have made such an impact as England’s Henry the Eighth. Vain, showy, sport and pleasure loving, and viciously cruel, these are some of the qualities for which Henry is remembered with curious affection.

Across the English Channel Francis the First was reigning in France at the same time that Henry reigned in England. The two men were so much alike they might have been brothers. For a time they were certainly friends – or as friendly towards each other as two of their kind could be.

They met for the first time at the celebrated “Field of the Cloth of Gold,” near the French town of Guines. The meeting, called to discuss joint plans for an assault on the Holy Roman Empire, gave both kings a splendid opportunity to exercise their talents for showmanship. Each vied with the other in decorating his retinue, until the place truly glittered with gold and jewels.

Henry built a wooden palace gilded with gold on the field, while Francis pitched an enormous gold and velvet tent. Unfortunately for him, before he met Henry a storm blew away his work of wonder, so that he had to stay in a nearby castle. In matters of rivalry, Francis was to know many more misfortunes.

Tournaments, balls and jousts that went on for weeks followed the meeting of the two great kings. Never before had Europe seen such a carnival atmosphere. It was all part of the fun when Henry laughingly challenged Francis to a wrestling match.

The French king was delighted to accept and the two men stripped for action. They struck and parried evenly until suddenly Francis threw Henry to the ground. The English king sprang to his feet – at which point the surrounding nobles anxiously advised him that his supper was ready. Jovially, the two kings embraced but perhaps the supper gong had averted what might have been an ugly incident.

Like Henry at this stage in his career, Francis was impetuous and full of action. Early one morning he marched into Henry’s wooden palace and was told that the King was still asleep. Without stopping, Francis strode on into Henry’s bedroom and woke up the English king.

While Henry dressed Francis stayed with him, doing the servants’ work or warming the King’s clothes and pouring his washing water. When the English and French nobles heard what was happening they were aghast, but Henry and Francis only laughed.

It was a jolly friendship – while the Field of the Cloth of Gold lasted. For when, later, Francis made war on the Holy Roman Empire, he was surprised to see that, instead of being on his side, the soldiers of his old friend Henry were lined up against him.

But for the rest of his life Francis was not much concerned with England’s Henry. He had, in his view, a much more important rival in Charles the Fifth, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. From the time that Charles was elected to the emperor’s throne, Francis nursed a bitter grievance, for he had wanted to be emperor himself.

Francis had another enemy, too, in Charles, Duke of Bourbon, the constable of France. When the King impounded Bourbon’s estates, the indignant duke stormed off to fight on the side of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Thus Europe was treated to the unusual spectacle of a great French nobleman leading foreign troops to victory against his own countrymen.

The battle had taken place near Milan, and having won it, Bourbon led the emperor’s army from Italy into France. “I’ll soon dethrone this frivolous king,” he declared, for he was an austere man and particularly disliked Francis’s pleasurable pastimes. But this time he met his match and a French army sent him hot foot back to Italy.

Francis should have been content with Boubon’s defeat. Instead he decided to follow it up by marching into Italy and laying siege to Pavia. Here the French unleashed a deadly cannonade at the emperor’s troops so that “one after the other great breeches were made in the enemy’s battalions, and there was nothing to be seen but flying arms and legs.”

Seeing the enemy take flight under this bombardment, Francis led some of his men in hot pursuit. It was another foolish move, for the emperor’s soldiers were able to turn and cut him off from his main army.

Francis now fought like a demon. Swords and pistols wounded him in the face, arms and legs, and still he whirled his sword at the enemy. Suddenly his horse was killed under him and a group of the emperor’s soldiers rushed him as he tell. They would have killed him had not an officer intervened.

For France the battle of Pavia was a disaster. Half the country’s nobility lay dead on the field, the other half and the King as well were prisoners. The emperor locked up the unfortunate Francis in a Spanish prison, where he had plenty of time to rue his folly as a military leader.

For nearly a year the French king remained a prisoner. His release came when he agreed the emperor’s harsh terms: he was to renounce all claims on the Italian petty kingdoms, he was to abandon his allies, to restore the warlike Bourbon to full power, to do this thing and that thing – and to make sure that he did all that he signed for, his two sons were to remain in Spain as hostages for him.

Francis rode back to France a free man, utterly determined to break every condition of this agreement. War broke out almost at once between France and the Holy Roman Empire, and Bourbon’s death in one of the battles removed the French king’s obligation towards that duke. The peace that was made when both sides had exhausted themselves was called the “Ladies, Peace” because it was mostly arranged by two noblewomen, Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy.

Despite his love of war in which he hoped so much to attain personal glory and failed so dismally, Francis found time to encourage the arts and science and to develop France as a civilised nation. Indeed, his refined taste for learning and an elegant civilisation was something to which Francis was always constant. Great men of the Renaissance enjoyed his generous patronage; he paid for voyages of discovery and encouraged manufacturing and trade.

The Italians, whom Francis constantly harassed in war, fascinated him. Any Italian artist of merit was assured of a place at the French court; when Leonardo da Vinci died at Fontainebleau he was almost in the arms of the king. Cellini the great goldsmith, was another who worked for Francis, and other Italian masters were hired by the king to teach the French.

Francis kept a dazzling court – there had never been so many courtiers in France – and he began the taste for fine country houses that were to supersede gloomy castles as royal homes. But during all this work, indeed, during all his life, he continued to nurse his constant jealousy against the Emperor Charles.

And because of that jealousy more war was inevitable. Francis invaded Charles’s territory; the emperor threw him back and invaded Provence, in the south of France. To stop Charles’s troops the French laid Provence bare by burning homes and destroying crops and at length, with nothing to capture but “scorched earth” the emperor’s soldiers retreated.

Again the two leaders made a peace treaty. It was supposed to last ten years; in fact, within four years Francis’s jealousy welled up again and the last six years of the “peace” were occupied with continuous battles.

A new and common threat – the Reformation – at last brought these two bitter rivals together. The Reformers, or Protestants, were determined to change the ways of the Catholic Church, and their movement spread across Europe like a whirlwind.

The Pope appealed to Francis and Charles as good Catholic monarchs to uphold his power and they responded together. In the alpine valleys of Vandois French soldiers put to the sword 3,000 Protestant peasants – an event which had the approval of their King.

But at 50 Francis was growing feeble; the splendid days of brilliant conversation and hunting were gone. The Dauphin Henry, who had picked up the reins of government was impatient to see his father dead so that he might be king. Henry’s friends mocked Francis as he grew weaker and when, at last, in 1547, the old King died, the new King Henry the Second breathed an undisguised sigh of relief.

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