Absolute Monarchs: France

Hi, and welcome to this review of the French government of the 16th century! Today, we will be looking at the diplomatic maneuvering, flourishing arts, military triumphs and misadventures, and the religious tensions of this vibrant period of French history. Let’s get started!

The end of the 15th century saw Louis XII take over the French throne after Charles VIII banged his head on a doorframe, fell into a coma, and died at the age of 28. Not content with simply inheriting the crown, Louis sought to marry Charles’ widow, Anne of Brittany. A bribe to Cesare Borgia, son of the infamous Pope Alexander VI, allowed Louis to discard his wife of 24 years and successfully marry Anne. He immediately set off for Italy and successfully conquered Milan. After initially pursuing Naples, he eventually agreed to divide Naples with the Spanish in a secret pact brokered by the Pope.

This agreement quickly unraveled and the French and Habsburgs of Italy were at war by 1501. These conflicts were part of the Italian Wars which lasted from 1494-1559. The wars were characterized by shifting alliances and quite a bit of French misfortune. After successive defeats to the Spanish, Louis withdrew from Italy in 1503.

Francis I succeeded Louis XII on New Year’s Day 1515. Nicknamed Le Grand Nez for his oversized nose, Francis was a charismatic and energetic ruler with a large appetite for art, knowledge, and war. Francis set off for Italy and won a decisive victory at the Battle of Marignano in September 1515. The war ended with France re-gaining the Duchy of Milan but the king had his sights on an even grander prize: Holy Roman Emperor.

Francis launched an intensive effort to succeed Maximilian I as Emperor in January 1519. He was opposed by Maximilian’s grandson and King of Spain, Charles. Ultimately, Charles succeeded and was unanimously elected Holy Roman Emperor, which resulted in Charles and Francis becoming lifelong enemies.

Francis was captured after a disastrous loss at the Battle of Pavia in February 1525 and taken to Madrid. Francis secured his release by renouncing his Italian claims and taking the hand of Charles’ sister Eleanor in marriage. His two young sons were to be taken hostage to ensure he kept his word.

He didn’t.

Francis was on the march to Italy at the head of an army less than a year later, as part of an alliance formed against Charles V. This alliance, called the League of Cognac, fared poorly against the combined might of the Habsburgs. The French siege of Naples failed after an outbreak of the plague and the defection of Andrea Doria, who was leading the naval blockade, to the Spanish. The Habsburgs were ultimately victorious and a detailed peace treaty was worked out between Louise of Savoy and Margaret of Austria known as the Treaty of Cambrai.

With his Italian ambitions temporarily halted, Francis turned his attention to strengthening ties with the papacy by marrying his son Henry to the niece of the Pope, Catherine de Medici. Around the same time, an unfortunate chapter in French history began with affair de placards. Anti-Catholic pamphlets were being posted around the capital, which prompted brutal responses as suspects were rounded up and burned. Francis issued the Edict of Worms which declared Protestantism ‘high treason against God and mankind.’

Though the persecution of religious protesters was approved by the papacy, the alliance with Ottomans was decidedly less accepted. France was surrounded by hostile powers either allied to or directly ruled by the Habsburgs, so an alliance with the Ottomans was pursued to gain military advantages. Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottomans, was open to Francis’ request, and an alliance was formed in 1536. This was the first non-ideological alliance between a Christian and Muslim state, which caused some controversy at the time. However, it ended up being an extremely successful alliance, lasting over 250 years.

Francis died in 1547, and was succeeded by his son Henry II. As a fifteen-year-old, Henry became romantically involved with Diane de Poitiers, a 35-year-old widow. Once Henry became king, Diane had a great deal of influence at court, to the extent she signed documents in the king’s name.

France’s obsession with overtaking Italy did not die with Francis nor did the alliance with the Ottomans. Henry and Suleiman joined forces against the Habsburgs in the final Italian War of 1551-1559. The war was painfully expensive for all involved and a final and lasting peace was agreed to in 1559. France gained Calais from England but permanently renounced all claims on Habsburg Italy.

After a freak jousting accident, Henry died of sepsis in 1559, leaving the throne to 15-year-old Francis II. Francis was old enough to rule but most authority had been delegated to his wife’s uncles who sought to stabilize the dire financial situation following the war. The measures proved to be highly unpopular and a coup was attempted to seize Francis. The coup failed and over a thousand conspirators were executed in the aftermath. In order to quash these quarrels and the financial situation as a whole, the Estates General was revived for the first time in over 70 years in 1560.

Francis II died after a short reign and was succeeded by his 10-year-old brother Charles IX. His mother, Catherine de Medici, acted as regent for Charles. She attempted to reduce tensions between Catholics and Protestants with the Edict of Saint-Germain. The 1562 edict recognized certain rights for French protestants to practice their faith, at least privately. Only a couple of months later, a group of Protestants were burned alive after they were found worshipping in a barn in Wassy. This massacre led to the revocation of the Edict of Saint-Germain and began the French Wars of Religion, which lasted until 1598.

In 1563, Catherine attempted to restore order by passing a new edict, but any moments of peace were fleeting. A few years later on St. Bartholomew’s Day a wave of anti-protestant violence swept the country, resulting in over 70,000 Protestant deaths.

After the massacre, Charles’ health declined rapidly, to the point that he eventually died from tuberculosis-related complications. His younger brother, Henry, rose to the throne but never produced an heir, so the next in line was his 9th cousin, Henry of Navarre.

Henry of Navarre, now known as Henry IV, realized his Protestant faith meant he would never be accepted by the people he intended to rule, so he converted to Catholicism. He brought an end to the ongoing French Wars of Religion with the 1598 Edict of Nantes which granted religious freedoms and rights to the Huguenots, a religious group of French Protestants. From such a difficult and unpromising beginning, Henry became one of France’s most popular kings.

Henry initiated a series of construction and infrastructure projects across the country to repair the fractured nation and stabilize the nation’s finances. Though nicknamed “Henry the Great”, there were plenty of people who did not see eye-to-eye with Henry. He was the subject of numerous assassination attempts throughout his life, and was eventually killed by a Catholic fanatic in 1610.

Once again, France was ruled by a female regent, Henry’s widow Marie. She and her ministers proved to be effective rulers until 1617 when Louis XIII took the throne.

Louis XIII delegated a great deal of responsibility to Armand du Plessis, the Cardinal of Richelieu. Richelieu was a seasoned politician who had served in a number of roles prior to becoming the king’s chief minister. Much of Richelieu’s focus now was in the situation developing across the continent.

This “situation” was the Thirty Years’ War, which began in 1618 when the Holy Roman Emperor attempted to force Catholicism on his subjects. He was immediately resisted by the Protestant princes of northern Germany, but France refrained from joining the fray as long as possible.

France eventually intervened directly in 1636 and helped turn the tide of the war. As a result of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the war came to an end. The Netherlands gained independence from Spain and France became a preeminent Western power.

Okay, now let’s go over a couple of review questions!

1. What was the motivation behind the alliance between France and the Ottomans?

A. Financial incentives
B. Religious unity
C. Defense against hostile powers
D. All of these

The correct answer is C!

2. What did the Edict of Nantes do?

A. Ended the Italian Wars
B. Levied war taxes
C. Secure an alliance with England
D. Grant religious rights to protestants

The correct answer is D!

I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!



by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: February 1, 2021