Francis I

Roger Mettam | Published in History Today

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.

The religious preoccupations of the King, both in diplomacy and in internal government, are much more convincingly outlined. Allying with foreign protestants and infidels when necessary, he favoured the Christian humanist movement in France but, in his role as Most Christian King, was determined to outlaw heresy from his dominions. He disliked excessive interference both by Rome and by the French clergy in his running of the kingdom and in his foreign policy, but here, as in his attack on heretics, he did not always have his way.

Turning more briefly to the internal administration of France, Mr Knecht outlines the obstacles to the effective exercise of royal power and concludes that it is inappropriate to describe this regime as 'absolute', although he still overestimates the ability of the crown to exact obedience to its orders in certain fields. Yet on the crucial problem of the sale of offices, he errs in the other direction. Still subscribing to the now highly contentious view that absolutism would eventually arrive with Louis XIV, when the crown would impose a direct authority on the country at the expense of these venal officials whose posts had been created in such large numbers by Francis, he tends to regard these bureaucrats as obstructive to royal policy. He rightly asserts that these men, who had purchased their offices, were difficult to dislodge and discipline, and that they were prepared to oppose the central government. But it should be added that they would usually administer on its behalf, partly because it was in their own interest, and that they formed a social group which was prepared to lend substantial sums to the crown. Louis XIV would therefore seek to co-operate with them, not to suppress them. Indeed he had no choice.

The actual mechanism of government at the centre also remains elusive. Royal ministers appear in the narrative, but the council as a functioning institution is not glimpsed. The court too, elaborately described in its architectural splendour, is never shown as a working political machine. There is no discussion of how patronage, political influence and faction were organised within its walls.

Despite Mr Knecht's claims for the effectiveness of royal power under Francis I, and even more so under Louis XIV, the observant reader will notice some very different similarities between the two reigns – the obstructiveness of parlements and local institutions, the strength of provincial separatism and even of overt disobedience, the importance of the aristocratic provincial governor, the bullionist economic policy of the crown, the impressive royal ordinances which could not be implemented, the taxes which could be levied but not fully collected, and above all the alternation of threat and compromise, of advance and retreat, of alienation and rapprochment which characterised the relations of the monarchy with the privileged eIites throughout these early modern centuries.

  • Roger Mettam is lecturer in history at Queen Mary College, University of London, and author of Government and Society in Louis XIV’s France.

Francis I

Cambridge University Press, 1982; XV + 480pp.

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