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Francis I

By Roger Mettam | Published in History Today 1982 
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by R.J. Knecht

For nearly thirty years, sixteenth-century Europe was dominated by three remarkable rulers. Yet, while Charles V and Henry VIII have attracted historians, Francis I has been neglected. Numerous works have nevertheless been written on other aspects of French history during his reign, and Mr Knecht now synthesises this material into a story which has the monarch as its focus. The magnitude of this task is indicted by his list of the 340 secondary works which have influenced his text, and he has also drawn upon a formidable array of printed primary sources. He has delved hut little into French manuscript archives and therefore much of his account will be familiar to historical experts, even if structured here in a novel and useful way. However some sections, such as that on the rural and urban economy, are so heavily dependent on a very few, easily accessible, modern works that he might profitably have abandoned comprehensiveness and omitted them altogether.

In his narrative, Mr Knecht's priorities are in many ways those of Francis himself. He vigorously describes foreign policy, the repression of heresy, the expansion into the colonies, the patronage of letters and the celebration of the monarchy in architecture and painting, but shares royal disdain for the routine of internal government. The story is told with a wealth of vivid detail and anecdote, which admirably recreates the atmosphere of the period, as in the splendid description of the way in which Francis, although a captive of the Emperor, was royally received throughout Spain. Yet, if the badinage and courtesies among ambassadors and ministers are evocatively reported, the long-term goals of international diplomacy remain opaque. We are told briefly that Francis based his policy on dynastic and territorial claims rather than on any national interests, but are given no insight at all into the principles of Charles V's foreign policy. As for England, the explanation offered for Wolsey's international involvements is a direct borrowing from a recent English history whose conclusions on this point are regarded as controversial by Tudor specialists.

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