Francis I was king of France from 1515 to 1547. Francis built on the work done by Louis XI and set the scene for the clash between the monarchy and the nobility in the French Wars of Religion. The reign of Francis I is dominated by the spread of absolute monarchy, Humanism and Protestantism

Francis firmly believed in absolutism and he intensified the policy of the previous three kings. He was the first king of France to be called “Your Majesty” – a title previously held by the Holy Roman Emperor. TheCouseil du Roi (King’s Council) specialised its activities and systematised its work. One day it would concentrate on finance, the next day on justice etc. Important decisions were taken by the Conseil des Affaires which was a small inner circle around the king.

The common tax – the taille – was increased to finance French foreign policy and this was organised by the chancellor Antoine Duprat. Offices and titles were sold as was the right to nominate a successor to the purchased office. The crown willingly borrowed money. In 1522/23 there as a whole sale reform of the tax collecting and accounting system which placed financial administration under the close supervision of two central officials : the Tresorier de L’Epargne and the Receveur des Parties Casuelles.

Judicially, the chief agent of royal administration was the Grand Conseil – an off-shoot of the Royal Council – which co-ordinated civil and criminal justice. This policy of Francis lead to him clashing with the Parlément de Paris which frequently objected to royal policy which was certainly weakening its status as one of the leading legal bodies in France. Francis only curbed the Parlément in 1526.

The provincial parléments and royal courts immediately below them were reformed to ensure that their personnel were more responsible to central authority and reacted accordingly to central authority rather than acting like locally elected magnates.

Reform and the codification of the law continued. In 1539, the Ordnance de Villers-Cotterets ordered that all legal documents had to be in French and asserted that all royal courts were superior to those of the church. This was an extension of royal authority at the expense of the church. Francis expanded royal power at the expense of the nobility be absorbing into the monarchy the last great semi-independent fiefdoms : the lands of the Duke of Bourbon from 1523 on; the lands of Alenç on by escheat in 1525; those of Albret by the marriage of Francis’s sister Margueritte to Henry II D’Albret, King of Navarre in1527; those of Burgundy in 1529 and Brittany in 1532 by royal decree.

The Concordat of Bologna of 1516 with Pope Leo X gave Francis the right to appoint nearly 600 of the chief church offices in France. The Parlément de Paris only recognised this right in March 1518 as they recognised the huge power this would give the king and because many were uneasy about the pope not appointing post-holders as this was a religious matter. The Concordat also gave people the right to appeal to Rome on legal matters and this would lead to a dilution of the power of the Parlement de Paris and a friendly French king and a friendly pope would not contradict one another on legal issues purely because the Parlément did not agree with a decision.

The Reformation had to enter France purely for geographical reasons but the persecution of the Protestants in this catholic country did not start at once. Francis encouraged the spread of Humanism – his sister patronised Lefevre D’Etaples – and many poor clergy in France (and there were plenty) called themselves Lutherans.

In April 1521, the University of Paris condemned Luther and the Parlément began to charge Humanists as heretics. As both these institutions had opposed the growth of absolutism, Francis did all he could to block their persecution – if he could undermine the authority of these two institutions, then he could advance his own cause at their expense.

Francis was also an ally of some of the north German princes who were fighting the Holy Roman Emperor – yet he was a catholic. He had challenged Charles V for the title of emperor but he had lost. Was this his revenge ? Or was he thinking that a powerful emperor was a direct threat to France itself especially as there was an obvious clash of personalities. As the Protestants in France became more hostile, Francis became more antagonistic towards them……but note that this originated from his belief that there should be no challenge whatsoever to his authority so when the Protestants became more vocal and radical, Francis had to act but it did suit his belief then that he should improve his catholic standing in the nation. When the Affairs of the Placards took place in 1534, he took action but this was because Francis saw it as a threat to his life rather than a religious issue though it did allow a re-union with the king, Parlément and the Sorbonne. All three acted as a unit to introduce a policy of severe repression. Cardinal de Tournon played an important role in this. A list of forbidden books was published by the Sorbonne; villages connected to Protestantism were destroyed; 3,000 people were massacred in Provence alone and 14 Protestants were executed in Meaux in 1546.

How absolute was the monarchy of Francis?

To answer this question you need to be clear about what absolutism means. Historians still argue over this issue and whether Francis was an absolute monarch or not.

Henri Prentout believes that Francis had to rule with the nobility in a form of contract that neither upset the other. J. Russel Major has argued that the reign of Francis was based on consultation and popularity. G. Pages in “The Monarchy and the Ancien Regime in France” claims that Francis was the first monarch in France to acquire absolute power. Certain issues see to indicate that Francis was not afraid of upsetting powerful institutions and that he did what he felt was right for France and therefore him.

The Concordat was perfect for Francis and his pursuit of Naples and also acceptable to Leo X in Rome who needed French support for dynastic reasons. The Parlément, the Sorbonne and the church all hated it but they all accepted it after some crude intimidation. The king’s uncle, Rene of Savoy, was ordered to sit in on all meetings of the Parlément despite all their protests and Francis threatened to banish the most vocal opponents and replace them with “worthy men” (men of his choice !!). Despite this threat, the Parlément did not register the Concordat at first and Francis is said to have flown into a “paroxysm of rage”. He threatened to set up a rival parlément in Poitiers and do business with it. This was enough for the Parlément to register the Concordat though it did so in Latin which was a sign that it did it under duress.

During the Habsburg-Valois Wars, Francis was captured and put in prison. Did his power survive his time in prison ? YES. Louise of Savoy was made regent and the Parlément presented her with a wide range of complaints (remonstrances) which she claimed “honoured God” and were “very useful and necessary to the welfare of the king and state”. She then did nothing. She appointed Antoine Duprat as Archbishop of Sens and Abbot of St. Benoit-sur-Loire as she had the right to do under the terms of the Concordat and in her position as regent. When Francis returned from his time in prison he attacked the Parlément by:

forbidding it to meddle in affairs of state forbidding it to modify royal legislation forbidding it to hear lawsuits with regards to church appointments making it seek on an annual basis, a confirmation of its powers.

Francis refused to give the Parlément its traditional right of reply (July 1527).

Francis almost certainly decided the course of foreign policy with his inner council. The repudiation of the Treaty of Madrid was taken by this small group one month before the nobles met at Dijon in June 1526. The decision was endorsed by the king. It was once thought that the nobles loyalty to Francis swayed his belief towards repudiation – but this is not accepted now. The decision was the king’s alone and he did not ask for noble opinion……see article by Henri Hauser called “The Treaty of Madrid”. In fact, after the nobles of Burgundy swore loyalty, other nobles used exactly the same phrases in speeches made by them…… if their speeches had been written for them !!

Francis never called a meeting of the Estates-General, the principle representative body in France. He obviously never felt a need to do so regarding it as weak and potentially dangerous. There was talk of it meeting in 1525 during his captivity but the idea was dropped. In fact, it next met in 1560. The nearest France got to having an Estates-General in the reign of Francis came in 1527 when the Assembly of Notables was called. However, as its title would indicate, this was hardly a representative body though it included churchmen and representatives from provincial parléments. The meeting was called to raise 2 million gold crowns to pay the ransom for the king’s two sons held captive in Spain. Francis did not have to call this group – he simply had to “honour” them. The nobles gave Francis all that he asked for i.e. the money and a declaration that the Treaty of Madrid be made null and void.

Unrest caused by excessive tax was swiftly dealt with. In 1542, the population of western France rebelled over the gabelle – a tax on salt. The militia of Poitou was called out but even this failed to halt the 10,000 well equipped rebels. Francis personally intervened and sat in judgement at La Rochelle. He threatened the rebels but pardoned them. Was this a sign of weakness or astute diplomacy ?

a large quantity of salt was delivered to the king’s house at Rouen which enabled some of the king’s creditors to be paid off. Francis was at war with Charles V and a diversion of resources could have been disastrous. a crushing defeat of the rebels could have ‘bottled’ up problems for the future. As it stood, the king came over as judicious but fair. In this instance he won over the people. does absolutism have to solely include crushing those who oppose you ? Does the belief allow a more sympathetic approach ?

The salt tax was not given up but it was postponed for the future. In 1544 it was extended to most of the kingdom which provoked serious rebellions in Saintonge. In 1546, the gabelle was farmed out for 10 years to individuals who paid the king a sum of money in return for collecting the tax and keeping the profits. These men had a reason to collect the tax far more effectively than the king did as they had a financial incentive to do so. The riots of 1548 were savagely dealt with by Henry II, the son of Francis.

How effective was royal rule in the localities ? Did central power extend over the provinces? The provincial parléments had great influence in the provinces and they claimed that they upheld and defended local privileges and rights. They opposed the appointment of ‘royal’ men sent to the regions as they clearly undermined the authority of these parléments. However, unprofessional conduct by these parléments was harshly dealt with – as Rouen was to experience. In 1540 the city’s provincial parlément was shut down and it was only allowed to reconvene again when the king said that it could.

Francis established travelling royal courts (Grand Jours) to maintain royal law but their approach was usually known about and offenders fled to the countryside where they were free from prosecution. In 1541, the Parlément of Rouen was reopened but the king via his men kept a very close eye on its activities.

The provincial representative bodies (the pays d’etats) were also brought to heel. Their function was to provide money when the king needed it.

The system which Francis used was not new but it was as effective as it could be in such a large country as France where its communication was poor and travelling could take a long time. But the system could only be maintained by a young king who was respected though not necessarily liked. Henry II was to be like his father – feared and respected. The nobility lost a lot of power under the rule of Francis and Henry. When Henry was killed in 1559, his death opened the way for the nobility to reclaim their old position. If Francis had not enforced his authority, would the nobility have felt the need to do what they did on the death of Henry II ? If they had had a relatively free ride under Francis with their power not being curbed, why did they rise up against the monarchy after the death of Henry II ? If they had not had their power curbed, why rise up ? Presumably they must have felt that their power had been eroded under both Francis and then by his son.