Who's Who

The French Renaissance Court

R.J. Knecht looks at the ­practical considerations behind the smooth operation of the huge courts of the Valois kings of France.

Courts have long been a popular subject among a certain reading public. The love affairs of kings, queens and royal mistresses – what the French aptly sum up as histoire d’alcôve – have been the stuff of popular historiography for centuries; but a court needs also to be considered as an institution, significant politically, socially and culturally. Politically, it was the centre of decision-making; socially, it attracted all those people looking for advancement for themselves and their relatives by capturing some morsel of royal largesse; culturally, it promoted innovation and excellence, notably in the visual arts, often as a means of projecting the monarch’s image to the world at large. In recent years a number of historians have focused their attention on the court in a number of countries, notably Britain and Spain. The subject is now well-established and has prompted the creation in Britain of a Society for Court Studies with its own scholarly journal. The court of France has not been neglected, but much of the attention has focused on Louis XIV’s court at Versailles (r.1643-1715) – a huge gathering of nobles and ladies, revolving around the royal person, and controlled by a rigid code of etiquette. This image is far removed from the French court as it existed during the Renaissance, say between 1483 (when Charles VIII came to the throne) and 1589 (the beginning of the reign of Henry IV). It was then a motley crowd of people who sometimes stayed put, but were more often moving across the kingdom and largely unaware of etiquette. The king was surprisingly accessible to his subjects. A royal edict of 1530 showed how easy it was for anyone to enter his lodging: 

Because of the great flow of people who each day come into our lodging when we are there, several thefts have taken place of ornaments from our chapel, of silver plate and of clothes belonging to us and to others by people who by virtue of being decently dressed are allowed to enter everywhere without being observed, and likewise by others who, by claiming acquaintance with some members of our suite penetrate everywhere.

Yet the court was not just a free-for-all; it did have a structure. Its heart was the king’s household, which was divided into a number of departments catering for his physical and spiritual needs. The queen and other members of the royal family had households of their own. The principal departments were the  hôtel, which fed the king and his entourage, the chambre or royal bedchamber, and the chapel. The hub was the chamber where the privy council met. The gentlemen of the chamber were the king’s constant companions, enjoying free access to his presence, but as they served in rotation they were not all present simultaneously. Some were sent abroad as ambassadors and could be absent for long periods. Their activities conferred on the chamber a special cultural significance, as they brought back impressions gathered abroad.

In addition to its several departments, including those concerned with the royal hunts, the court had a military establishment made up of units created at different times, the oldest being the Scottish guard, founded by Charles VII (1422-61). There were also three companies of archers, each one a hundred strong, the Cent-suisses (Hundred Swiss) established by Charles VIII, and Deux cents gentilshommes de l’hôtel divided into two companies. All these troops were mounted except the Swiss, who escorted the king on public ceremonies. Law and order at court was maintained by the prévôt de l’hôtel and his archers. Many people who were not part of the court came on business, including councillors, chancery staff, notaries and secretaries. There were also guests, such as princes of the blood, foreign princes, prelates and foreign diplomats who often had large suites of their own. Numerous hangers-on included merchants and artisans, who were exempt from tolls and guild regulations as long as they served only the crown. There were also the camp followers, called filles de joie suivant la cour, who received a New Year’s gift of 20 écus from the king.

Overall control of the court was vested in the Grand Master. He drew up each year the roll of the household staff, supervised appointments, controlled expenditure, kept the keys of the king’s residence, and introduced ambassadors to his presence. Such an office could only be held by someone enjoying the king’s special trust. For more than thirty years, from 1526 to 1559, it was held by Anne de Montmorency, one of the richest and most powerful noblemen in France; he also became Constable of France or head of the army, and virtually ran the government from 1528 until 1541.

The size of the court in the sixteenth century is hard to estimate as it varied according to time and place. Historians differ in their estimates: some favour 15,000, others as few as 8,000. It was larger in times of peace than of war, when the king and his able-bodied courtiers joined the army, leaving behind a rump of women, elderly men and clerics. Young noblemen were in the habit of rushing off to fight as soon as a war seemed imminent. Even in peacetime, however, the court’s population varied: as it travelled across the kingdom, noblemen from one region would tag on for a few days or weeks before going home and leaving others from elsewhere to fill their places. Such visitors seldom stayed for long as life at court was expensive; nor was it always rewarding. Under Henry II (r.1547-59), a lesser nobleman from Normandy, the sire de Gouberville, spent time and money going to court in search of an administrative post only to return empty-handed. Few nobles chose to reside permanently at court; even the greatest liked to return home to attend to their own affairs.    

The court of France in the sixteenth century was wherever the king happened to be. As the kingdom grew in size and became more peaceful, the court travelled more extensively than before, but its mobility varied according to the personality of the monarch and the seasons. Some kings favoured town-life more than others. It was commonly believed that one’s ‘native air’ was essential to good health, hence the need felt by Charles VIII to reside at his birthplace, Amboise. Louis XII (r.1498-1515) spent on average four months each year in his native Blois. Francis I (r.1515-47) was a compulsive traveller. A passionate huntsman, he was always looking for new game; he liked nothing better than to shed cares of state and to vanish into some large forest with a few friends. Sir Anthony Browne, who witnessed a royal hunt near Amiens in 1527 wrote: 

... the King’s bed is always carried with him when he hunts, and anon, after the deer is killed, he repairs to some house near at hand, where the same is set up, and there reposes himself three or four hours, and against his return is provided for him a supper by some nobleman... whereupon a great number of ladies and gentle women, used to be in his company be sent for, and there he passes his time until ten or eleven o’clock.

Whereas Francis’s predecessors had only hunted deer in summer, he did so all the year round. Writing in 1535 a Venetian complained that during his embassy that had lasted forty-five months, he had travelled almost incessantly in pursuit of the king. Francis’s progresses were not haphazard. He tried to visit different provinces each year. His pattern of travel was seasonal. In winter he tended to stay put, but during the rest of the year he travelled almost ceaselessly.

He could not ignore Paris, however, and spent more time there than his immediate predecessors: a total of 1,291 days over thirty-two years. Although major political decisions were taken by the king and his council, a number of important government bodies, including the Parlement of Paris, the highest court of law under the king, had ‘gone out of court’ in the Middle Ages and become fixed in Paris, so that France had, in effect, two capitals: the court and Paris. One could not do without the other. New laws needed to be registered by the Parlement before they could be applied, and the king sometimes had to go there in person (this was known as a lit de justice) to ensure that a law was registered. Many state occasions, such as a princely wedding, funeral or the reception of a distinguished foreign guest, were customarily held in Paris, and the king also liked to shop there for luxury goods.

Travel in sixteenth-century France was not easy. The roads were unsurfaced, often narrow and winding, and poorly maintained; in heavy rain they became quagmires. Rivers often burst their banks or froze in the winter. Ice-flows sometimes carried away bridges. An outbreak of plague in a particular locality could force a sudden diversion. For all of these reasons travel was painfully slow except for royal messengers who used post horses. Wherever possible, the king, members of his family and chief courtiers travelled by boat, while the rest of the court went overland. Moving the court was like moving an army. The baggage train was enormous, including furniture, gold and silver plate, and tapestries. Today English visitors, used to their own well-filled country houses, are often  disappointed by the emptiness of some French châteaux. Guides tell them that the contents were stripped during the French Revolution. This may be true in certain cases, but  many royal châteaux were not furnished originally. No purpose would have been served by furnishing a residence that might only be visited once in a blue moon. Only royal châteaux where the court resided for relatively lengthy periods, such as Saint-Germain-en-Laye were kept furnished; the rest remained empty from one royal visit to the next. In 1533, when Francis I met Pope Clement VII at Marseille, a huge sum was spent on moving the court’s furniture, plate and tapestries. They were packed in chests and transported overland from the Louvre, Blois and Amboise to Orleans in two separate convoys. They were then carried up the Loire in two large boats. From here, waggons pulled by oxen transported the precious cargo to Lyon. It was then taken down the Rhône to Arles and put on a ship for the final leg to Marseille. The journey had lasted four months.

The court did not travel in a long, disciplined, single file. It split up into parallel columns that moved across the countryside in isolated bands. Without necessarily keeping to the roads, they would take short-cuts trampling over cultivated fields if need be. The bulk of the court might meet up at some agreed point along the route; stragglers, moving at their own pace, would turn up later. The means of transport were determined by social status. A man of quality was expected to ride a horse. A litter was favoured by anyone of substance too tired, ill or old to ride. Carts pulled by horses carried merchandize. Coaches only made their appearance around 1540 when Francis I was given one by the Duke of Mantua. Accompanied by two ladies, he drove it at speed around the park of the Tournelles, and was so thrilled by the experience that he took the vehicle on a longer ride toVincennes. Coaches capable of carrying several passengers, known as chariots branlants, only reached France from Italy around the mid-century. The fashion soon spread. In 1562 a coach was made for Charles IX (r.1560-74) and a few years later several coaches were to be found in the royal stables. 

We were following the court with the weariest trouble and fatigue; the reason for this was that the train of the King drags itself along with never less than 12,000 horse behind it; this calculation is the very lowest; for when the court is complete in times of peace, there are some 18,000 which makes 12,000 less than the average.

 Thus wrote Benvenuto Cellini, the Florentine goldsmith and sculptor, in his autobiography, remembering his visit to the French court in 1540. The court’s slowness was not his only complaint. ‘Consequently’, he wrote:  

We had to journey after it through places where sometimes there were scarcely two houses to be found; and then we would set up canvas tents like gipsies, and suffered at times very great discomfort.


Finding accommodation was the responsibility of the king’s fourriers or quartermasters. Machiavelli, who visited France between 1501 and 1511, was  impressed by their efficiency, but not everyone shared his view. Under Francis I, the bishop of Saluzzo complained that an isolated house would be found for the king and his ladies while the rest of the court were left to fend for themselves three, four or six miles away. Ambassadors were often grossly overcharged for accommodation by the natives. ‘I have never seen more extortionate people than these Frenchmen’, an Italian wrote, ‘they are never satisfied and do not care about piercing the hearts of all Italians’. Wherever possible Francis I stayed in one of his own châteaux or accepted the hospitality of a courtier. Otherwise he would stay at an abbey or an inn, but he was not fussy and did not mind ‘roughing it’ on occasion. He often chose to stay at a remote spot, usually a forest, where no building existed capable of housing even part of the court. A modest dwelling might be adapted to serve his minimum needs. Wooden partitions would be run up to create a makeshift chamber or chapel. Feeding the court was another problem. Its presence, even in a large town likeLyon, would strain local resources and force up food prices. In August 1540 France was hit by a severe drought. As the court travelled to Le Havre it ran out of fodder, wine and cider. Courtiers were reduced to drinking polluted water with predictable consequences; several succumbed to dysentery.

Why was the court prepared to put up with so much discomfort? Tradition was largely responsible. The court had always picked up its food where it was produced rather than have it brought from afar. Another reason was political: in a media-free age the king needed to affirm his authority by making his presence known to his subjects. A town would offer him a formal reception or ‘joyous entry’ when he visited it for the first time. Neither royal proclamations nor official tracts could move the hearts of the people as much as a ceremony in which he appeared in person amid a décor carefully designed to project his idealized personality and the nature of his rule. A coronation was seen by relatively few people, whereas an entry allowed the monarch to be seen by many people in different places. As it was organized by the townspeople themselves, it served to identify them with the mystery of kingship. Although entries changed over time, their original purpose was never forgotten: it was to honour the king in return for his protection. He was met outside the town by the clergy, town officials and citizens wearing colourful liveries and escorted into it to the sound of trumpeters, drummers and other musicians. The presentation of a gift by the town either in the form of money or an objet d’art was preceded by an exchange of oaths: the king promised to uphold the town’s privileges and the citizens swore to obey him. After receiving the town’s keys, the king rode through the streets in procession under a rich canopy, a transference to him of the ritual used to honour the Blessed Sacrament on the feast of Corpus Christi. The street decorations accompanying an entry reflected a town’s prosperity: there might be triumphal arches made of wood and canvas. Symbolism would run riot in the form of inscriptions, plaster statues and roadside theatricals evoking some biblical or mythological tale. Such entertainments took weeks to prepare. Some tableaux vivants were religious, others historical. For Louis XII’s entry into Paris in 1498 a tableau depicted the Archangel Gabriel baptizing the children Herod had massacred. At Rouen, in 1485, a deputation of ladies and esquires led by Bathsheba begged David to crown Solomon who was given the features of the reigning monarch. Girls representing various French provinces sang joyful ditties as the ceremony unfolded. Animals were much used in entries as royal symbols: the porcupine for Louis XII, the ermine for Anne of Brittany, the salamander for Francis I. At Rouen in 1508 a dragon with three heads, representing Milan, Genoa and Rome, emerged from a rock symbolizing Italy to be slain by the porcupine which came out of a wood representing France. The ancient and medieval worlds combined to shape two legends commonly illustrated in royal entries: that of the nine heroes or preux, and that of France’s Trojan origin. Ancient mythology influenced theatrical displays as early as 1494. Following Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494, the Roman triumph made its appearance in royal entries. In the sixteenth century it became customary for printed descriptions of an entry in verse or prose to be published. A large number of such festival books survive. They soon began to carry illustrations in the form of woodcuts.    

Why was Cellini so keen to come to France when so much might have detained him in his own native Italy? His purpose was to capture the patronage of Francis I who had acquired an international reputation for his good taste in art and wide-ranging munificence. Cellini was not the first Italian or the last to be drawn to his court. Contacts, political and cultural, between France andItaly had flourished in the Middle Ages, but the Italian Wars, begun by Charles VIII in 1494, had strengthened them. Successive military campaigns brought the French kings and their nobles into direct contact with the classical culture of the Italian Renaissance. Charles VIII had returned fromNaples with sculptors and gardeners, Louis XII may have employed Leonardo da Vinci, and Francis I had invited the old man himself to France and given him a desirable residence at Clos-Lucé, outside Amboise. Other artists had followed, including Andrea del Sarto, Rosso and Primaticcio. They were honoured as few artists were elsewhere in Europe. Rosso, it was said, lived like a prince. Cellini was keen to join this happy band. A first visit had failed to produce a commission, but another sponsored by cardinal Ippolito d’Este, a close friend of the king, resulted in a commission to make a set of giant candelabra. Leonardo had been too old and infirm to produce anything other than drawings during his last years spent in France, but Cellini was young enough to turn the Petit Nesle, a building in Paris given to him by the king, into a thriving studio where he and his apprentices beat sheets of silver into shape under the admiring gaze of Francis I and his court.

In addition to being a political and cultural centre, the court was a microcosm of French society. All social classes, except the peasantry, were represented, as well as both sexes. The sixteenth century was marked by a notable expansion of the role given to women. ‘A court without women’, Francis allegedly said, ‘is like a garden without flowers’. The court also acted as a magnet for people anxious to better themselves socially. They might secure an office which was a uniquely French institution: a post in the royal administration that automatically conferred nobility; by acquiring one by gift or purchase a man could move from the third estate into the second. The first estate, the clergy, was also well represented, for the king, by virtue of his sacre or coronation, was a semi-priestly figure supposedly endowed with the miraculous power of healing the sick. Proud holder of the papal title of ‘The Most Christian King’, he had sworn at his coronation to protect the Church and to drive heretics out of his kingdom. He dispensed not only offices, but also ecclesiastical bene­fices. So ambitious churchmen had as much cause to come to court as had ambitious bourgeois. A lucrative bishopric or abbey might be obtainable for the asking. As for the so-called old nobility – families of ancient lineage – it came to court as the king’s right hand. However absolute the king may have been in his own estimation, he needed the nobility’s support. Handling it required tact and skill. Francis I had both except when he alienated the Duke of Bourbon. Nor was there much faction at his court before his declining years. It was only following the accidental death of Henry II in 1559 and the rise of the house of Guise that its unity began to crumble. Another powerful solvent was the rise of Protestantism, which began in the 1520s, but only became a serious threat in the 1560s after many nobles had converted to it. For more than half a century France had been blessed with domestic peace, ‘golden years’, but in 1562 aristocratic unrest and religious dissent combined to ignite the first of a series of bloody civil wars – the so-called Wars of Religion – which inevitably affected the court. For some time its presiding genius was no longer a man, but a woman and an Italian: the Queen Mother, Catherine de’ Medici. She tried as best she could to reconcile the factions and to restore religious unity, but in the end she failed. A woman, however able, could not command the same authority in sixteenth-entury France as a king.

Although ballets and other entertainments continued to be held at court, they took place against a background of mounting violence. Not even Catherine and her son, Charles IX, were safe. In 1568 they narrowly escaped being kidnapped by Protestant nobles before being besieged in Paris. In August 1572 a royal marriage in Paris was followed by the massacre of St Bartholomew, which bloodied not only the streets of the capital but also the courtyard of the Louvre. Rightly or wrongly Catherine was blamed for this terrible event, but it was certainly due to her initiative that her third son, Henry, Duke of Anjou, was elected King of Poland in 1573. This may now be seen as a mistake, for his absence from France fuelled the political ambitions of his younger brother, François, Duke of Alençon (Elizabeth I’s suitor). Following Henry’s return from Poland in 1574 the court witnessed a fierce rivalry between the two brothers. It became a sort of battleground on which their households tried to outdo each other in size and splendour. The contest only ended in 1584 when Alençon, now Duke of Anjou, died, but this event, far from simplifying the situation, made it worse, for Henry III (r.1574-89) had no son and, under the Salic Law, the next in line to the throne was Henry of Navarre, who as a Protestant was unacceptable to the majority of the King’s Catholic subjects.

From 1574 onwards the climate of the court altered completely reflecting the personality of the new monarch. Though highly intelligent, Henry III committed every sin in the manual of good political conduct. No one could have been further removed from Francis I than his grandson. Whereas the former had been accessible, gregarious and pleasure-loving, albeit authoritarian, the latter was a recluse, who tried to enhance his authority by distancing himself physically from his subjects and by creating a rigid court etiquette. At the same time, he alienated many courtiers by favouring just a few: the famous mignons. Nor was Henry keen on travel. He fixed his court in Paris, leaving it only for short breaks in private at Ollainville, a small château in the vicinity. Despite an empty purse which prevented him from dealing effectively with the Protestant threat to his authority, Henry promoted lavish festivities at court which contrasted with high food prices and hunger outside. He was accused of profligacy and of hypocrisy as he fervently embraced penitential exercises ranging from retreats in religious houses to hooded processions through the streets of the capital. In 1589 Henry was assassinated by a Jacobin friar. The court, however, survived, for it was the King, not the monarchy itself, that had been challenged.


The luxury of the Field of Cloth of Gold has passed from history to legend, but nothing survives. Although the craft of the goldsmith and silversmith was integral to the Renaissance court right across Europe, only a tiny proportion of their output remains intact, and nothing at all from France, where artefacts in precious metals were melted down wholesale by Louis XIV to be turned into coin to pay for his endless wars. More German and some Italian silverware survives, some of it made for ecclesiastic purposes, but much else for secular ostentation, to display the wealth, taste and classical learning of its owners, often incorporating precious objects or jewels from much earlier periods. Even in Renaissance times, silverware connoisseurs built collections of work that together were intended to encapsulate and embrace the world, in their range of materials, iconographic schemes and geographical reach.

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