The Kings of France during the Renaissance

The Kings of France during the Renaissance

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The Renaissance in France is often reduced to the reign of Francis I, a kind of auspicious period before the horror of the Wars of Religion. However, it is more correct to start this period with Charles VIII, and to conclude it with Henry II. For political reasons (the situation in France, the evolution of the monarchy), and in other areas, such as the arts or the relationship with Italy, whose Renaissance began a while ago. We will see that the reigns of Charles VIII, Louis XII, Francis I and Henry II are much more than a transition and a parenthesis between the end of the Hundred Years War and the beginning of the Wars of Religion.

Charles VIII (1483-1498), the Italian "grand design"

The hard and contested reign of Louis XI (1461-1483), considered by some as a tyrant, succeeded that of his son Charles VIII. The young king, however, was still a minor at his accession, and the regency was organized by his father, who entrusted it to his daughter Anne of France and her husband, Pierre de Beaujeu (from the Bourbon-Beaujeu house). It is not without provoking protests, such as that of Louis of Orleans. Rejected by the Estates General in Tours in 1484, the latter revolted with the support of the Duke of Brittany: it was the start of the "mad war" in 1485. The rebels were defeated in July 1488, in Saint-Aubin- du-Cormier, and Louis of Orleans is taken prisoner. King Charles VIII accomplishes one of his first great deeds by pardoning his enemy, who later becomes a valued ally, and more. At the same time, Charles VIII asserted his authority over the Beaujeu: it was the end of the regency. The king completes the solution of the problem of Brittany by marrying Anne, duchess since 1489, thus opposing head-on to the ambitions of Maximilian of Habsburg; however, he had to cede Franche-Comté and Artois to him.

Charles VIII then turned to Italy claiming the kingdom of Naples, a former possession of the House of Anjou. This is in fact just one step in launching a new crusade for Jerusalem. Desperate to achieve his objective, the king ensured the neutrality of his powerful neighbors by ceding them territories, such as Roussillon and Cerdanya in favor of Ferdinand of Aragon. In Italy, he allies with the Duke of Milan Ludovic Sforza. Despite his entry into Rome imposed on Pope Alexander VI Borgia, then his easy capture of Naples in 1495, the Italian campaign was a bitter failure for Charles VIII, who had to leave the peninsula in haste after an unexpected victory at Fornoue. The king planned to try the experiment again, but he died accidentally in Amboise on April 7, 1498.

Charles VIII governs with the various courts set up by his predecessors, without major conflict, even if at the same time he extends his power to appoint offices. He also attempted some tax reforms, without much success, and encouraged trade by re-establishing the Lyon fairs. In the arts, he helped bring Italian artists and technicians to France, and he protected someone like Jean Bourdichon.

Louis XII (1498-1515), the "Father of the people"

Charles VIII died at the age of twenty-seven without an heir, the dauphin Charles-Orland having died early in 1495. In compliance with Salic law, he was the king's cousin, Louis d'Orléans, his former enemy of the "war folle ”, which succeeds him and without really dispute. Thus ended the dynasty of the direct Valois. Having become Louis XII, the Duke of Orleans quickly had to deal with a new Breton problem. Indeed, Anne, being widow of Charles VIII, can recover her duchy and keep the relative independence of Brittany. A skilled negotiator, Louis XII obtained from Pope Alexander VI Borgia the annulment of his previous marriage to Jeanne of France; he could thus in turn marry Anne of Brittany in January 1499. At the end of this year, they had a daughter, Claude, who was to inherit the duchy from her mother. This one tries to negotiate the marriage of her daughter with Charles de Gand (future Charles V), with an agreement which would yield to Claude not only Brittany, but in addition Burgundy, the inheritance of the Dukes of Orleans and the rights on Italy! This is too much, the unity of the kingdom is threatened and, under many pressures, Louis XII takes control again: against the advice of his wife, he betrothed Claude to François d'Angoulême (future François Ier) in 1506. He still waits for Anne's death to marry the couple in 1514.

Besides Brittany, the great goal of Louis XII, like his predecessor, is Italy. He asserts his rights over the Milanese, because he is the grandson of Valentine Visconti, the latter's family having been removed from the duchy by the Sforza. The conquest took place in two stages, in 1499 then in 1500: Ludovic Sforza, known as the More, was taken prisoner (he died in captivity eight years later). Louis XII then decides to recover the kingdom of Naples, and for that he allies himself with Ferdinand of Aragon by the Treaty of Granada in 1500. The failure is however the same as that of Charles VIII after the quarrel with the king of 'Aragon. In 1504, the kingdom of Naples was definitely lost. The King of France, however, did not abandon his ambitions for Italy, and played with all his weight in the peninsula: he crushed a revolt in Genoa in 1507, then allied with Pope Julius II and the other great powers (except England) within the league of Cambrai, to beat Venice in 1509. From that moment, France was in such a position of strength in Italy that it could not last: Julius II understood it and constituted a Holy League. against Louis XII. All the Italian possessions were lost one by one, and the kingdom was even directly threatened when Henry VIII took Tournai in 1513. Louis XII had to comply with the demands of his victors and put an end to his ambitions in Italy. Widowed in 1514, he remarried to the daughter of Henry VIII, Marie Tudor. But she didn't have time to give him an heir when he died in 1515.

Little known today among the kings of France, Louis XII was nevertheless a popular king, long celebrated thereafter, and even shown as a model during the wars of religion. He received the title of "Father of the People" in 1506 at the Assembly of Tours. Despite this, after a decline in size, the king increased taxation to pay for his wars in Italy. He nevertheless wanted to fight against abuses in the collection of taxes, and France experienced a certain period of prosperity under his reign. With the help of Georges d´Amboise, Louis XII continued to reform institutions through a series of ordinances on justice or the drafting of customs. Quite religious, the king still opposed Pope Julius II, against whom he called a council in Pisa in 1511, without success.

François Ier (1515-1547), “king knight and restorer of Letters”

Once again, the succession proceeds without dispute. François Ier is consecrated on January 25, 1515, and reorganizes the close council of the king, by naming for example Charles de Bourbon new constable. He in turn claims the Milanese, which he recovers thanks to the victory of Marignan in September 1515. This does not prevent him from approaching the Pope Medici, Leo X, against the advice of the parliament and the University of Paris. If Europe is at peace, the rivalry quickly arrives with the accession of Charles V, who is elected emperor at the expense of Francis I. The latter then approached Henry VIII, during the famous interview at the Camp du Drap d´Or (1520). Despite everything, war is inevitable, and François I quickly finds himself alone: ​​Henry VIII supports Charles V, and the Constable Charles of Bourbon betrays him! The King of France then tries to regain the initiative on the ground that has so far brought him luck: Italy. Unfortunately, he was beaten in Pavia in 1525, and above all taken prisoner! Charles V only accepts to release him if he gives him back Burgundy (the emperor is the great-grandson of Charles the Bold); Francis I accepts the Treaty of Madrid, but does not respect his word on his release. As the war resumed, he won the support of Pope Clement VII, which led the emperor to plunder Rome in 1527. Two years later, the "Ladies' Peace" ended the conflict for a while.

The reign of Francis I entered a new phase, and he surrounded himself with new advisers like Anne de Montmorency. The king regained control in most areas, including religion, until he tried to mediate between Henry VIII and the Pope. The Protestant “problem” is, however, more and more persistent. At the end of the 1530s, the war resumed with Charles V then Henri VIII, with once again the Milanese and Burgundy as stakes. François I hesitated for a long time on the policy to be followed, but the aggravation of the conflict led to the disgrace of Anne de Montmorency, a supporter of an agreement with the emperor. The Peace of Crépy was signed with the latter in 1544, then two years later the Treaty of Ardres allowed the end of the war with England. François I died weakened on March 31, 1547, the country in difficulty in many areas, especially financial.

Known for his great architectural projects and his patronage, Francis I also strengthened royal power and led decisive reforms, such as the ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts (1539). In the context of the Reformation, he went from a relative tolerance towards Protestants to a fierce repression, of which the humanist Etienne Dolet, among others, suffered.

Henri II (1547-1559), the “king gentilhomme”

The second son of Francis I, Henry II opposed his father very early on. It is therefore no coincidence that he reminds the court of disgraced people such as Anne de Montmorency upon her accession to the throne. The new king must first settle the tax disputes bequeathed by his father, which broke out under the name of the "salt tax revolt", before Montmorency put it down at the end of 1548.

Henry II did not intend to abandon France's foreign claims. He had contested the Treaty of Ardres, and therefore went to war again with England, supporting the Scots, then succeeding in reclaiming Boulogne. The king is also opposed to the great rival of his father, Charles V, who does not succeed in making him fold by failing in front of Metz in 1553. Henri II takes advantage of this to try to regain a foothold in northern Italy but, despite the withdrawal of Charles Quint, the difficulties accumulate: France finds itself with against it Spain of Philippe II and England of Marie Tudor. The country was directly threatened with the siege of Saint-Quentin (Anne de Montmorency was captured), which led to the Duke of Guise’s recall from Italy. This one knows spectacular successes, like the recovery of Calais in 1558, and becomes very popular. This was not enough to compensate for the many internal problems, and Henri II had to sign the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in April 1559, definitively abandoning French ambitions in Italy. The king died on July 10, 1559, following an injury during the engagement tournament of one of his daughters.

As an extension of his father’s policy, and with the help of his wife Catherine de Medici, Henry II strengthened the artistic and cultural aura of a France emancipated from Italian influence; this is the time of Rabelais, Ronsard, François Clouet or Pierre Lescot. Initiator of many institutional reforms, he could not however resolve the kingdom's many economic and financial problems, which continued to worsen during his reign. In addition, the religious context is strained and the repression against Protestants intensifies ...

The succession of Henry II goes to his young son François II, who reigns for just over a year. The Guises saw their influence increase, and France entered the long and painful period of the Wars of Religion. The Renaissance, with these four major kings, was therefore not only for France the time of cultural and artistic brilliance, but also that of reforms and political, economic and religious upheavals decisive for the future.


- P. Hamon, Les Renaissances (1453-1559), Belin, 2009.

- A. Jouanna, P. Hamon, D. Biloghi, G. Le Thiec, La France de la Renaissance. History and Dictionary, Robert Laffont, 2001.

- A. Jouanna, La France au XVIe siècle (1483-1598), PUF, 2006.

- France 1500. Between Middle Ages and Renaissance, Exhibition catalog, RMN, 2010.

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