Renaissance France


Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt



"These are the foundations, these columns, which support the great edifice of the kingdom of France. The great size of the state, the number of its cities and provinces, the strength of its location and frontiers, the number, unity and obedience of the people and military forces, the supreme authority of the king and the unrestricted government--these are the chief reasons why this crown has reigned so long, has fought so many wars with such great glory, hag acquired such reputation and dominions, has preserved its friends, frightened its enemies, and has become known in recent times as the sole refugee of the oppressed."

--- Suriano, Commentarii del regno di Francia, 1561


Francis I and Henri II

If the Renaissance can be said to have been Spain's Golden Age, it dawned no less brightly for France. Her first Renaissance king, Francis I (r. 1515-1547), seemed to epitomize all that the Renaissance represented. Tall, strong, handsome, worldly and brave, he laid the foundations for France's greatness in the 17th century. Francis set the pace for the Renaissance north of the Alps with the richness of his court, the beauty of his architectural creations (it wag during his reign that the chateaus of the Loire were first created) and the expenses and expanses of his wars. Francis made peace with Henry VIII of England at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, an event noted forever afterward for its color and pomp. But, having made peace with France's mortal enemy, Francis' next move was not as wise.

Francis embroiled Valois France in what would become a century-long series of wars with the Hapsburgs that she should not have fought and could not have won. These wars were fought across northern Italy, along France's borders and in the New World. Francis inherited the quarrel from his predecessors Charles VIII and Louis XII, and it would remain a burden to France long after the House of Valois was dust. Francis lost most of the battles, including Pavia which resulted in his capture by Charles V in 1525. But, each time that Francis was faced with disaster, the other players on the European stage, (England, the Papacy, Venice, Ottoman Turkey and the Lutherans) rushed to his aid. They may not have wished Francis success, but they were not foolish enough to let the Hapsburgs destroy him.

One of the few benefits that France received from its involvement in Italy was exposure to the Italian Renaissance. The hesitant importation of culture that had begun under Charles VIII and Louis XII became a matter of policy for Francis I. Many of the great Italian Renaissance artists, sculptors and engineers came to France at the King's invitation. Among these were Leonardo da Vinci (who died there in 1519), Cellini, Serlio ande Rosso Fiorentino. The marriage of Francis' son, Henri, to Catherine de' Medici brought even more Italian cultural influence into France. Legend has it that the basis for French cooking came with Catherine in the form of her cooks. Italian architects heavily influenced the design and building of the great chataeuxs on the Loire. After a long and colorful, if not brilliant, reign Francis died in 1547, within months of his rival Henry VIII.

Francis was followed on the throne by his son Henri II (r. 1547-1559). Like his father, Henri fought the Hapsburgs in Italy, with a little more success. He was able to take Piedmont and hold it, despite a Spanish invasion that threatened Paris for a short time and a siege of Metz by Imperial forces. Charles V was replaced by Philip II as France's Hapsburg archenemy. Mary Tudor's support of her husband's struggle against France was to cost her Calais, England's last trophy from the Hundred Years War. Henri was able to gain favorable terms at the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559. He then held tournaments and festivities to celebrate the outcome of his wars and participated in it himself. At one of these tournaments he fell victim to the most important sliver of wood in French history. A piece of a broken lance struck him in the eye, killing him ten days later. His death ushered in a period of almost fifty years of constant and destructive religious civil war.

The reigns of Francis I and Henri II had allowed France to recover economically and psychologically from the ravages of the Hundred Years War of the previous century. She had reached her summit. She was a powerful nation that had challenged the Hapsburgs for dominance in Europe. She had played her part in the exploration of the New World and her royal court had set the style of the courts throughout the continent. From this point on it was a sad decline.


The Religious Wars

Legend has it that before his death Henri II consulted the famed seer Michel de Nostrodame (1503-1566) concerning the future of the dynasty. At that time he had three sons and felt secure that the Valois line would continue to rule France for decades to come. But he wag told that his three sons marked the end of the dynasty and that by the time that thirty years had passed the Valois would be no more. Two factors contributed to making this prediction come to pass: the incredible weaknesses of the sons of Henri II and the almost unbelievably fierce religious wars that would soon rend France asunder.

In the years after the posting of Martin Luther's 95 Theses in 1517, Protestantism had slowly spread into France. The spread of the Protestant faith into France was to almost destroy the country and lead to a half century of bloody civil war. Francis I was lenient at first with the Huguenots, as the French Protestants were called, but eventually turned against them. Yet, despite moderate persecution, the new religion prospered in western and southwestern France.

Many of the nobility were to convert to the new religion, including the House of Bourbon, relatives of the Kings. The attempt to subjugate the practitioners of the new religion and the series of weak kings who followed Henri II on the throne were to hurl France into a series of eight bloody religious civil wars that would not end until the reign of Louis XIII and the siege of La Rochelle (the same siege that decorates the pages of Dumas' "The Three Musketeers'). The memoirs of Blaise de Monluc, who earned a knighthood and marshal's baton, describes in vivid detail the extent of these wars.

Though these were murderous times, civilization and culture did not entirely die in France. The primary torchbear of French culture in these years was Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Gifted with a first rate mind and a classical education from his father who had fought in the army of Francis I in Italy and been exposed to the Italian Renaissance first hand, Montaigne became one of the most perceptive philosophers of the century. His Essays developed an entirely new form of prose as well as illustrating the author's wit and ability for detached observation. Montaigne's Apology for Raymond Sebond has been characterized as the most thoroughgoing exposition of skepticism in modern literature.

Henri's three sons, the last Valois rulers of France, were weak kings unable to control the powerful winds of civil and religious conflict that were blowing through their kingdom. The Guise family was to figure prominently in the struggle for control of the kingdom and the King and the triumph of Catholicism. The Dukes of Guise and their kin were to form the heart of the Catholic party in France and violently opposed any compromise with the Huguenots. In time they were to pose themselves as rivals to the kings and, later, as possible replacements for the House of Valois.

These religious civil wars were to have international implications. The Huguenots requested and received aid from Elizabethan England and Protestant Germany. The Catholic League was granted monetary and military aid from Catholic Spain and the Papacy. And, with France gone as the traditional counterpoise to Spain, Philip II was able to jointly fight against the rebellious Dutch provinces and launch armadas against England.

The first of Henri II's sons, Francis II (r. 1559-1560), died after only a two year reign, his only claim to fame being that his wife was Mary Stuart, later Queen of Scots. Her kinship to the House of Guise was to lead to much French intervention in the affairs of Scotland. The second son, Charles IX (r. 1560-1574), was a weak boy king. During his reign the battle between the Catholic and Protestant nobility reached a feverish pitch.

But the spark to France's fourth religious war was the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre that resulted in the murder of 15,000 Huguenots by the Catholics. This shameless act, which occurred on August 24, 1572 gave the House of Guise carte blanche to take its long delayed revenge upon the prominent Protestant noblemen. Among the victims were Gaspar de Coligny, Admiral of France, and the Duke de La Rochefoucauld. The event was greeted throughout Catholic Europe as a great triumph of the faith. But politically, the massacre accomplished nothing. Within two months the Huguenots were again in revolt and the King wag forced to guarantee their liberties in 1573. The young king, controlled by his mother until his dying day, passed away the following year at the age of 24.

The reign of the last son, Henri III (r. 1574-1589), was dominated by the question of the succession and religious strife. Henri's sexual preferences were open to interpretation and it was obvious that he would have no sons. This left the crown to his cousin, twenty times removed, Henry of Navarre of the House of Bourbon (who wag, of course, a Protestant). In 1584 he was recognized as heir presumptive to the throne. During the struggle that inevitably followed the declaration of a Huguenot as heir to the throne, the King vacillated between support of Guise and the Catholics and Henry.

War continued to be waged across the French countryside with no mercy shown to any. The Duke of Guise hoped to eliminate Henri de Bourbon, King of Navarre, as the heir by assassination or defeat on the battlefield. Many times the Bourbon cause hung in the balance as the Huguenots were able to scrape together a stalemate on the battlefield. In 1587 Henry of Navarre took to the field against the Catholic League, which now enjoyed the support of the King. He captured several cities and defeated the enemy's main army, which was twice the size of his own.


Henry IV

In 1589 Henri III wag stabbed by a fanatical monk. On his deathbed he bequeathed the crown to Henry of Navarre, pleading with him to become a Catholic. In addition to the crown and request, Henri left his successor a prostrate and impoverished France divided against herself and pouring out her lifeblood at a rate that amazed the chroniclers of that most bloodthirsty age.

Henry IV (r. 1589-1610) tried to maintain himself as a Huguenot. He was successful in defeating the armies of the Catholic League at Ivry in 1590 and took Paris by siege the next year. The Spanish intervened on the side of the Catholics and invaded northern France, taking Calais. Henry recognized that as long as he was the Protestant ruler of a Catholic country with a powerful Catholic neighbor, he would always be in danger. Thus, he was eventually forced to grant Henri's deathbed request in payment for his crown. He converted to the Catholic faith, quipping "Paris is worth a Mass". After this conversion he was able to count upon the support of a united France.

The rest of his reign was spent rebuilding the country after thirty-two years of religious civil war. In 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes which authorized the full practice of the Protestant faith and offered protection by the Crown. In his personal life Henry IV was noted for his large number of mistresses but is best known as the "only King of France remembered by the poor". He was assassinated in 1610.

The death of Henry IV's predecessor, Henri III, marked the passing of the House of Valois, rulers of France for 261 years. It was their fortune to rule (and misrule) France during the Renaissance and their misfortune to fail to bring France to the full pinnacle of her power. This was to have to wait for the House of Bourbon, Henry IV's dynasty, and the Splendid Century (the 17th Century).



1494--Charles VIII invades Italy, tying France to combat in the area for the next century. Spain intervenes in Italy against France.

1498--Louis XII becomes King.

1502--Hostilities between France and Spain recommence in Italy.

1512--Battle of Ravenna and death of Gaston de Foix, brilliant French commander in Italy.

1513--England invades France.

1515--Francis I becomes King of France. He invades Italy and captures Milan.

1520--Peace is established between England and France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

1525--In an attempt to reconquer Milan Francis engages the Imperial/Spanish army at Pavia and is defeated. He is captured and taken as a prisoner to Madrid.

1531--Francis reorganizes the French army.

1544--England invades France in conjunction with Imperial forces.

1547--Henri II becomes King.

1552--Henri Il takes Metz and Baudricourt.

1557--England and Spain, united under Mary Tudor and Philip II of Spain, conduct joint operations against France.

1558--Henri II conquers Calais, England's last territorial gain from the Hundred Years War.

1559--Peace of Catteau-Cambresis and death of Henri II at a tournament celebrating it. Tournaments are abolished in France. Dueling becomes popular. Religious persecution of the Huguenots begins. Francis II becomes King. The House of Guise becomes the power behind the throne.

1560--Charles IX becomes King. The House of Guise continues, with the approval of the Queen Mother Catherine di Medici to rule while the King reigns.

1562--First Religious War begins.

1567--Second Religious War begins.

1568--Third Religious War begins.

1570--Montaigne begins writing "Essays".

1572--Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre and Fourth Religious


1574--Henri III becomes King of France.

1575--Fifth Religious War begins.

1576-Formation of the Catholic League and beginning of the Sixth Religious War.

1580--Seventh Religious War is fought. Montaigne publishes his "Apology for Raymond Sebond".

1585--Eight Religious War begins. The Duke of Guise wins a great number of battles over the next three years but is assassinated in 1588.

1589--Henri III is assassinated. Henry IV becomes King. He defeats the Catholic League at the Battle of Arques.

1590--Henry IV defeats the Catholics at Ivry. Spain intervenes.

1593--Henry IV converts to Catholicism.

1595--Henry IV stalemates the Spanish at Fontaine-Francaise.

1598--Edict of Nantes issued. Peace established between France and Spain.

1610--Henry IV assassinated. Louis XIII, of "The Three Musketeer" fame becomes King as a child.




Cate, Curtis, "Rocroi", Military History Quarterly, Volume 2, No. 1, Autumn 1989, MHQ Inc., New York City, New York, 1989.

Durante, Will and Ariel, The Reformation, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1957.

----------------------- , The Age of Reason Begins, Simon and Schuster, New York City, New York, 1961.

Febvre, Lucien, Life in Renaissance France, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1977.

Monluc, Blaise de, The Hapsburg-Valois Wars and the French Wars of Religion, Archon Books, Hamden, Connecticut, 1972.

Montaigne, Michel de, An Apology for Raymond Sebond, Penguin

Books, London, England, 1987.

--------------------- Essays, Penguin Books, London, England, 1958.