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From the Emperor’s Desk: Yesterday, September 11, was the Anniversary of the birth of Louise of Savoy, today is the anniversary the birth of her son, King François I of France.

François I (September 12, 1494 – March 31, 1547) was King of France from 1515 until his death in 1547.

François of Orléans was born on September 12, 1494 (the day after his mother’s birthday) at the Château de Cognac in the town of Cognac, which at that time lay in the province of Saintonge, a part of the Duchy of Aquitaine. Today the town lies in the department of Charente.

François was the only son of Charles of Orléans, Count of Angoulême, and Louise of Savoy, eldest daughter of Philip II, Duke of Savoy and his first wife, Margaret of Bourbon, the daughter of Charles I, Duke of Bourbon (1401–1456) and Agnes of Burgundy (1407–1476). François was a great-great-grandson of King Charles V of France, through his father and it was from this line François drew his claim to the French throne.

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His family was not expected to inherit the throne, as his third cousin King Charles VIII was still young at the time of his birth, as was his father’s cousin the Duke of Orléans, later King Louis XII. However, Charles VIII died childless in 1498 and was succeeded by Louis XII, who himself had no male heir. The Salic Law prevented women from inheriting the throne. Therefore, the four-year-old François (who was already Count of Angoulême after the death of his own father two years earlier) became the heir presumptive to the throne of France in 1498 and was vested with the title of Duke of Valois.

In 1505, Louis XII, having fallen ill, ordered that his daughter Claude and François be married immediately, but only through an assembly of nobles were the two engaged. Claude was heir presumptive to the Duchy of Brittany through her mother, Anne of Brittany. Following Anne’s death, the marriage took place on May 18, 1514. On January 1, 1515, Louis XII died, and François inherited the throne. He was crowned King of France in the Cathedral of Reims on 25 January 1515, with Claude as his queen consort.

By the time François ascended the throne in 1515, the Renaissance had arrived in France, and prodigious patron of the arts, he initiated the French Renaissance by attracting many Italian artists to work for him, including Leonardo da Vinci, who brought the Mona Lisa with him, which François had acquired. François’ reign saw important cultural changes with the rise of absolute monarchy in France, the spread of humanism and Protestantism, and the beginning of French exploration of the New World. Jacques Cartier and others claimed lands in the Americas for France and paved the way for the expansion of the first French colonial empire.

For his role in the development and promotion of a standardized French language, he became known as le Père et Restaurateur des Lettres (the ‘Father and Restorer of Letters’). He was also known as François du Grand Nez (‘Francis of the Large Nose’), the Grand Colas, and the Roi-Chevalier (the ‘Knight-King’) for his personal involvement in the wars against his great rival Emperor Charles V, who was also King of Spain.

Following the policy of his predecessors, Francis continued the Italian Wars. The succession of Charles V to the Burgundian Netherlands, the throne of Spain, and his subsequent election as Holy Roman Emperor meant that France was geographically encircled by the Habsburg monarchy. In his struggle against Imperial hegemony, he sought the support of Henry VIII of England at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. When this was unsuccessful, he formed a Franco-Ottoman alliance with the Muslim sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, a controversial move for a Christian king at the time.

His first wife, Claude of France, died in 1524 and On July 7, 1530, François I married his second wife Eleanor of Austria (November 15, 1498 – February 25, 1558), also called Eleanor of Castile, was born an Archduchess of Austria and Infanta of Castile from the House of Habsburg and a sister of the Emperor Charles V. The couple had no children. During his reign, François kept two official mistresses at court.

The first mistress was Françoise de Foix, Countess of Châteaubriant. In 1526, she was replaced by the blonde-haired, cultured Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, Duchess of Étampes who, with the death of Queen Claude two years earlier, wielded far more political power at court than her predecessor had done. Another of his earlier mistresses was allegedly Mary Boleyn, mistress of King Henry VIII and sister of Henry’s future wife, Anne Boleyn.

Death

François died at the Château de Rambouillet on March 31 1547, on his son and successor’s 28th birthday. It is said that “he died complaining about the weight of a crown that he had first perceived as a gift from God”. He was interred with his first wife, Claude, Duchess of Brittany, in Saint Denis Basilica. He was succeeded by his son, Henri II.

François’ tomb and that of his wife and mother, along with the tombs of other French kings and members of the royal family, were desecrated on 20 October 1793 during the Reign of Terror at the height of the French Revolution.

François I has a poor reputation in France–his 500th anniversary was little noted in 1994. Popular and scholarly historical memory ignores his building of so many fine chateaux, his stunning art collection, his lavish patronage of scholars and artists. He is seen as a playboy who disgraced France by allowing himself to be defeated and taken prisoner at Pavia. The historian Jules Michelet set the negative image.

British historian Glenn Richardson considers Francis a success:

“He was a king who ruled as well as reigned. He knew the importance of war and a high international profile in staking his claim to be a great warrior-king of France. In battle he was brave, if impetuous, which led equally to triumph and disaster. Domestically, François exercised the spirit and letter of the royal prerogative to its fullest extent. He bargained hard over taxation and other issues with interest groups, often by appearing not to bargain at all.

He enhanced royal power and concentrated decision-making in a tight personal executive but used a wide range of offices, gifts and his own personal charisma to build up an elective personal affinity among the ranks of the nobility upon whom his reign depended….Under Francis, the court of France was at the height of its prestige and international influence during the 16th century. Although opinion has varied considerably over the centuries since his death, his cultural legacy to France, to its Renaissance, was immense and ought to secure his reputation as among the greatest of its kings.”