HE was born under a tree in Cognac on September 12, 1494. His grandfather was Charles of Orléans, the poet; perhaps song and the love of beauty were in his blood. His father was Charles of Valois and Orléans, Count of Angoulême, who died, after many adulteries, in the third year of Francis’ life. His mother was Louise of Savoy, a woman of beauty, ability, and ambition, with a taste for wealth and power. Widowed at seventeen, she refused the hand of Henry VII of England, and devoted herself—barring some liaisons—to making her son king of France. She did not mourn when Anne of Brittany, second wife of Louis XII, had a stillborn son, leaving Francis heir to the throne. Louis sadly made Francis Duke of Valois, and appointed tutors to instruct him in the art of royalty. Louise and his sister Marguerite mothered him to idolatry, and prepared him to be a ladies’ king. Louise called him Mon roi, mon seigneur, mon César, fed him chivalric romances, gloried in his gallantries, and swooned at the blows he received in the jousts that he loved. He was handsome, gay, courteous, brave; he met dangers like a Roland or an Amadis; when a wild boar, escaping from its cage, sought to frolic in his princely court, it was Francis who, while others fled, faced the beast and slew it splendidly.
At the age of twelve (1506) he was betrothed to Claude of France, the seven-year-old daughter of Louis XII. She had been promised to the boy who was to become the Emperor Charles V; the engagement had been broken to avoid yoking France to Spain; this was one item in a hundred irritations that urged Hapsburg and Valois into conflict from youth to death. At fourteen Francis was bidden leave his mother and join Louis at Chinon. At twenty he married Claude. She was stout and dull, lame and fertile and good; she gave him children in 1515, 1516, 1518, 1520, 1522, 1523, and died in 1524.
Meanwhile he became king (January 1, 1515). Everybody was happy, above all his mother, to whom he gave the duchies of Angoulême and Anjou, the counties of Maine and Beaufort, the barony of Amboise. But he was generous to others too—to nobles, artists, poets, pages, mistresses. His pleasant voice, his cordiality and good temper, his vivacity and charm, his living synthesis of chivalry and the Renaissance, endeared him to his country, even to his court. France rejoiced, and placed high hopes in him, as England in those years in Henry VIII, and the Empire in Charles V; the world seemed young again, so freshened with royal youth. And Francis, even more than Leo X, was resolved to enjoy his throne.
What was he really, this Arthur plus Lancelot? Physically he would have been magnificent, had not his nose been more so; irreverent contemporaries called him le roi grand nez. He was six feet tall, broad-shouldered, agile, strong; he could run, jump, wrestle, fence with the best; he could wield a two-handed sword or a heavy lance. His thin beard and mustache did not disguise his youth; he was twenty-one when crowned. His narrow eyes suggested alertness and humor, but not subtlety or depth. If his nose betokened virility it conformed to his reputation. Brantôme, whose Dames Galantes cannot be taken as history, wrote therein that “King Francis loved greatly and too much; for being young and free, he embraced now one, now another, with indifference... from which he took the grande vérole that shortened his days.”1 The King’s mother was reported to have said that he was punished where he had sinned.* Perhaps history has exaggerated the variety of his amours. Whatever their number, he remained outwardly faithful first to Françoise de Foix, Comtesse de Chateaubriand, then, from 1526 to his death, to Anne de Pisselieu, whom he made Duchesse d’Étampes. Gossip spread a hundred romantic tales about him—that he besieged Milan not for Milan but for a pair of unforgettable eyes that he had seen there,3 or that a siren in Pavia lured him to his central tragedy.4 In any case we may have some sympathy for so sensitive a king. He was capable of tenderness as well as infatuation: when he proposed to divorce his son from the persistently barren Catherine de Médicis, her tears dissuaded him.5 “Nothing can be imagined more humane than Francis,” said Erasmus;6 and if that was the pathos of distance, Budé, France’s own humanist, described him as “gentle and accessible.”7
He was vain even for a man. He rivaled Henry VIII in the splendor of his royal robes, and in the furry insouciance of his beret. He took the salamander as his symbol, betokening persistent resurrection from every conflagration, but life scorched him none the less. He loved honors, distinctions, adulation, and could not bear criticism. He had an actor whipped for satirizing the court; Louis XII, bitten by the same wit, had merely smiled.8 He could be ungrateful, as to Anne de Montmorency, unfair, as to Charles of Bourbon, cruel, as to Semblançay; but by and large he was forgiving and generous; Italians marveled at his liberality.9 No ruler in history was kinder to artists. He loved beauty intensely and intelligently, and spent almost as readily on art as on war; he was half the purse of the French Renaissance.
His intellectual ability did not equal his charm of character. He had little Latin and no Greek, but astonished many men by the variety and accuracy of his knowledge in agriculture, hunting, geography, military science, literature, and art; and he enjoyed philosophy when it did not interfere with love or war. He was too reckless and impetuous to be a great commander, too lighthearted and fond of pleasure to be a great statesman, too fascinated by appearances to get to essences, too amiably influenced by favorites and mistresses to choose the best available generals and ministers, too open and frank to be a competent diplomat. His sister Marguerite grieved over his incapacity for government, and foresaw that the subtle but inflexible Emperor would unhorse him in their lifelong joust. Louis XII, who admired him as “a fine young gallant,” saw with foreboding the lavish hedonism of his successor. “All our work is useless,” he said; “this great boy will spoil everything.”10