Francis I of France is inevitably compared to Henry VIII. Both kings had big personalities, big love affairs, and big scandals that rocked the face of Europe. But there’s a lot more to Francis than just the similarities to the Tudor counterpart. From his unlikely ascension to the throne to his brutal defeats and torturous later years, Francis did not languish in his neighbor’s shadow.
1. He Started At A Distance
Born François of Angoulême in 1494, the man who came to be Francis I was never supposed to see the throne of France. His parents were from a minor branch of the royal family and he was the great-great-grandson of King Charles V of France, whose reign ended nearly a century before Francis’s birth. With that much distance, no one expected him to rule.
But as we’ll see, when it comes to succession crises, things are never simple.
2. He Experienced Horrific Loss
Before Francis had to face the possibility of inheriting the throne, he endured a dark twist of fate. In 1496, his father died suddenly. Francis was two, and his mother Louis of Savoy was just 19. But instead of giving in to grief, Louise stepped up to the plate. She took charge of Francis and his sister Marguerite’s education. She prepared him for every possibility the future held—including an ascent to the throne.
3. He Was In The Right Place At The Right Time
Henry VIII was obsessed with having a male heir, but he seems tame in comparison to Louis XII of France, who ascended to the throne when Francis was just a child. However, luck was not on his side. Thanks to French law, his two daughters couldn’t take the throne and that male heir did not appear. And if you traced your finger down the line of succession—there was Francis.
4. He Didn’t Know What The Future Held
Francis’s childhood was spent in a sort of limbo, waiting for a metaphorical ax to fall. Would Louis XII have a son, thus relegating Francis to a minor position in the court—or would he die without a son, leaving Francis to be king? Well, in 1505, when Louis XII fell ill, it looked like he finally had his answer. But Louis wasn’t just about to let his name and his issue fall into obscurity.
For Francis, the crown came with a big condition.
5. He Pushed Him Into It
Fearing for his life, Louis XII summoned his courtiers to his bedside and insisted, for the good of the kingdom, that Francis should marry his eldest daughter Claude. Francis was only 11, and Claude was six years old. After some debate, the nobility allowed the two to become engaged—but Louis XII had another surprise up his sleeve. He recovered from his illness, at least temporarily allowing Francis a few more years of freedom.
6. They Put Him In A Difficult Position
Francis would become the victim of his predecessor’s plotting in more ways than one. See, the potential union between Francis and Claude had infuriated quite a few very important people. That’s because Claude’s mother had plans of her own for her daughter—preferring instead to wed her to the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
This plan had been in motion long before Francis came on the scene—and it didn’t end well.
7. His Marriage Was Nothing But Trouble
Marriage wasn’t the only thing that those in power had decided for Francis before he even hit adulthood. When Louis XII betrothed Claude to Francis, it set the stage for a feud between Francis and Charles V—long before either young man saw the throne. As we’ll see, this would go on to have violent and disturbing repercussions for Francis when he hit the throne.
8. He Tied The Knot
In denial that he wasn’t going to have a son, Louis XII began to arrange another marriage for himself in 1514. Still, as an insurance policy, he finally wed his daughter Claude to Francis in May of that year. If there was a honeymoon period, it was short—soon after, Francis had to welcome a new mother-in-law to the fold when Louis XII married again.
However, this last-ditch effort would have disastrous consequences.
9. He Tried—And Failed—To Prevent Francis From Being King
After tying the knot for the third time, Louis XII got right to the important task of baby-making with his new wife—an effort that may have sealed his fate and secured the throne for Francis I. On January 1, 1515, Louis XII passed at the age of 52. Many whispered that overexertion in the bedroom was what took his life—but realistically, it was probably gout.
Either way, it meant one thing. After years in limbo: Francis I would finally become King of France.
10. He Threw Himself Into The Job
What did François of Angoulême—now King Francis I—do with his newfound power? Well, the ongoing Italian Renaissance proved to be a great influence on him, and he became a patron of the arts and letters and began grand building projects. It was a testament to his education. Did he start out a great ruler? Absolutely. And how was he as a young husband? Erm…not great.
11. He Preferred The Familiar
Instead of throwing himself into married life, Francis kept his wife at an arm’s length. It may seem like a cold move—but he had his reasons. Look at it this way. He was young and powerful and there were people coming at him from all angles looking for a piece of their own. He trusted those he knew best—his mother and his sister, Marguerite.
This unfortunately came at the expense of his young wife. But him favoring family wasn’t the only problem.
12. He Took A Mistress
Francis may have been a husband and a king, but he was still only 20. He wanted to sow his wild oats. Francis had a wandering eye, and sadly for his wife Claude, it didn’t wander too far. He began an affair with one of Claude’s courtiers—who had a scandalous side of her own. Her name was Mary Boleyn. Yes…of those Boleyns.
13. He Had A Way With Words
When it came to affairs with kings, Mary was the first to put the Boleyn name on the map. She had been in France to serve the previous queen but stayed on after Louis XII’s passing—putting her right in Francis’s orbit. He gave her a number of nicknames, including “the English mare” and “my hackney”. Gee, thanks?
14. He Moved On
When the relationship between Francis and Mary Boleyn dissolved, it didn’t appear to be a matter of great heartbreak. There were rumors about Mary and other French courtiers, and Francis got back on the horse as well. When he called the Count of Châteaubriant to court, he didn’t expect to fall for the man’s wife—but that’s exactly what happened.
Her name was Françoise de Foix, and to the king, she was a lot more than an innocent crush.
15. He Was Persistent
For two years, Francis showered Françoise’s family—including her husband and brothers—with gifts, favors, and titles, all in an attempt to seduce her. While many other power-hungry courtiers would’ve been powerless against this display, Françoise didn’t seem to be interested in Francis—but of course, this didn’t stop him from trying.
16. She Got A Bad Hand
And what of Francis’s wife? Well, as a member of the House of Valois-Orléans, she was the genetic victim of her ancestor’s attempts to keep the power in the family. As such, she was short and suffered from scoliosis. She also took her job as royal baby-maker pretty seriously, and pregnancy after pregnancy took its toll on her body.
Francis didn’t make things easy for his wife Claude—but he wasn’t the only cruel one. Did the French nobility respect her for her dedication to her position? Nope. Instead, they made fun of her. It definitely wasn’t easy being Francis I’s wife…
17. He Had Something To Celebrate
Soon after Francis ascended to the throne, his wife gave birth to their first child—a girl. They got right back to trying, and she was pregnant again soon after. Another girl came, and with her, the pressure on both Francis and Claude to keep producing children until they had a son. Finally, in February 1518, they got what they wished for, and Claude gave birth to a boy.
After Louis XII’s disastrous end, it was a massive win for the French royals—and they planned a celebration worthy of the occasion.
18. He Kept His Friends Close—And The Object Of His Affection Closer
During the boy’s baptism, Francis I enlisted help from an unexpected source. He honored Jean de Châteaubriant and his wife—Françoise de Foix—with a role in the ceremony. This was the first official event where the people got a glimpse into the way Francis was favoring her, and it caused a scandalous ripple through the court.
People began whispering that Françoise was as good as the king’s—but that was news to her.
19. He Met Opposition
Francis pursued Françoise de Foix for years before she became his official mistress. When he finally made her his chief mistress, their romance met violent resistance. Surprisingly, it was not Francis’s wife who was mad—having grown up in the royal court, she expected this sort of thing. No, Françoise met an even more dangerous foe in the form of Francis’s mother.
She loathed the Foix clan so much that Françoise’s presence may have actually served to distract her from her habitual bullying of Queen Claude.
20. He Let Her Go
Whereas Francis’s mother made her unhappiness known, his match with Françoise had support (or at least, indifference) from another unexpected source. Françoise’s husband didn’t seem to care that his wife was cavorting with the King. When Francis made moves to send him away to Brittany a few years into the affair, he didn’t protest.
He just went and left Françoise at court, free to fulfill her position as chief mistress—which is exactly what she did.
21. He Lost Against His Sworn Enemy
As much as it may seem like it, Francis’s reign wasn’t all hanging out with artists and wooing the ladies. His predecessor had left him in the middle of a number of power struggles and military conflicts, including his long-running rivalry with Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, Francis had tried to win that title at an election in 1519, but Charles had outmaneuvered him—and it wouldn’t be the last time they’d end up fighting.
22. Their Rivalry Intensified
Even though Francis I might not have seemed particularly loyal to his wife, his feud with Charles of course went back to her—her mother had arranged for her marriage to Charles, only for her father to veto it and insist she marry Francis. Even though Francis had “won,” Charles was still a thorn in his side. He ruled over Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, and a handful of territories that bordered France.
Their checkered past did not make them good neighbors. Francis found a decisive victory early in his reign when he captured Milan in 1515—but good things can’t last forever.
23. He Needed An Ally
In the search for an upper hand against each other, Francis and his enemy both looked for an ally in the same place. When Francis heard that Charles had met with Henry VIII, he came up with an elaborate plan to win the upper hand. He was supposed to meet with Henry in 1520 for a summit, and he decided that he’d go to extreme lengths to impress the Tudor King.
24. He Made A Bet
The plan began early, with the offer of a gentlemanly bet—which almost caused an international incident. In the months preceding the Field of the Cloth of Gold, both kings agreed to not shave their beards until they finally met in person. Henry’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon, grew sick of his “au naturel” look and demanded he trim the whiskers.
As a (unusually) considerate husband, Henry obeyed his wife. Big mistake.
25. It Was A Grave Mistake
The French were outraged. To them, it seemed like the English had just snubbed France for Spanish interests! Luckily the English ambassador to France (who was, ironically, Anne Boleyn’s father, Thomas Boleyn) assured Francis’s mother that “their love is not in the beards, but in the hearts”. Sure, that’s a nice way of saying “these guys are already weirdly competitive”.
26. He Went Overboard
At the summit, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Francis spared no expense—but he wasn’t the only one. Each king tried to outspend and outdo the other, and the result was a lavish, elaborate event that could’ve bankrupted them both. There were 2,800 golden tents, fountains full of red wine, and the rulers and their retinue went through nearly 2,200 sheep during feasts.
But beneath the grotesque displays of wealth, there was a serious undercurrent of tension.
27. He Challenged Him
Among all the entertainment, a number of tournaments took place—but to minimize risk, neither king was supposed to compete against the other. Well, Francis was in for a disturbing surprise. Henry VIII surprised him and everyone in attendance by challenging him to a wrestling match. Henry may have thought that he was about to make a big splash—but he was actually in for a major embarrassment.
28. He Had The Upper Hand—Or So He Thought
Francis I handily beat Henry VIII in the wrestling match at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Not only did he walk away with his dignity intact, but the event seemed to have been a great success…at least, at first. Ultimately, the Field of the Cloth of Gold had little political consequence. Francis and Henry had used the time to build goodwill between France and England—but the Tudor King was about to ruin it all in one fell swoop.
29. They Betrayed Him
Soon after this meeting of the egos, one of the most influential figures in the Tudor court, Cardinal Wolsey, signed a secret treaty with Charles V, aligning England with Spain in the event of a conflict with France. The announcement sent shockwaves throughout Europe. And, well, if it was a conflict that they wanted, a conflict is what they got.
30. They Challenged His Power
The Italian Wars (1494-1559) would come to define Francis’s military career. Although they started before his birth, this Franco-Italian grab for land put him at never-ending odds with the Holy Roman Empire. For Francis, this culminated in the Four Years’ War of 1521—and a series of humiliations that would forever taint his name.
31. One Of His Men Turned On Him
First, the French lost Lombardy—but that loss was nothing compared to the betrayal that followed. One of Francis’s dukes, Charles of Bourbon, double-crossed him and sided with the Spanish forces in the middle of all this turmoil. Things were bad out in the battlefields…but somehow, they were even worse at home.
32. He Lost His Wife
Francis’s wife Claude had given him seven children in as many years, but the string of pregnancies had taken its toll on her body, and she perished at the age of 24. Her tragic loss was made even sadder by the fact that few people, other than her children, seemed to care—and that’s not even the darkest part. There were twisted rumors that Francis, with his womanizing ways, had given her syphilis, and that’s what had taken her life.
Whether it weighed on his conscience or not, Francis had little time to contemplate it—he had to go back into battle.
32. He Suffered A Brutal Dishonor
Francis then attempted to retake Milan—and it came to a climax in the most shameful moment of his entire reign. During the Battle of Pavia in 1525, enemy forces captured the French king and delivered him to Charles V. The Holy Roman Emperor held Francis as a POW in Madrid for one long, humiliating year. Francis needed to make a deal with Charles V to get out of there—but it would come at a massive cost.
33. He Traded His Sons For His Shackles
Francis was a prisoner with no leverage, so to free himself from the Holy Roman Empire, he had to make a horrible deal. Not only did he have to give up his claim to Artois and Flanders and marry Charles’s sister, Francis also had to surrender his eldest sons, Francis and Henry, as hostages to Spain. Once he was free, Francis immediately repudiated the treaty, arguing it was made under duress.
Did that get his sons back? Oh, absolutely not. As we’ll see, that was just one of the battles he had to face in the coming years.
34. He Fell In Love Again
Francis returned to France an irrevocably changed man. Was it a bruised ego? A premature midlife crisis? Maybe even…the loss of his wife? No matter the cause, Francis quickly fell for a new woman—Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly. There was just one problem. That would be the presence of his reigning chief-mistress, Françoise de Foix.
35. She Did Not Take Rejection Well
Despite her initial reticence, Françoise had spent the last 10 years falling deeply in love with King Francis. And while it was likely he had other mistresses, she’d always been #1—until Anne came on the scene. For two long years, Françoise put up a fight for her man, but it was a losing battle. Francis made Anne his chief mistress in 1528.
Though it’s likely Francis would’ve kept Françoise around in a lesser role, she retreated to her husband’s castle in Brittany.
36. He Got His Boys Back
Francis may have been spending hours in the glow of new love with Anne, but he still had a lot on his plate—like the fact that his sons were prisoners of his enemy. For four years, Francis and his mother Louise campaigned to get the Princes back. The young boys were housed in dank conditions and had forgotten how to speak French.
While their release and return home was slow to negotiate, they eventually made it back to the French court. And although they relearned their mother tongue quickly, their time in captivity forever changed them—and damaged their relationship with their father.
37. He Had An Unwanted Wedding
There was also the matter of the other conditions of Francis’s release—like the fact that he’d agreed to marry Charles V’s sister, Eleanor of Austria. As with Claude, Francis mostly ignored this second wife. However, unlike his fertile marriage with Claude, his union with Eleanor produced no children. Francis rarely did his marital “duty”.
To be fair, it’s hard to feel hot when your partner is a living callback to the imprisonment of your kids.
38. He Gave Her The Cold Shoulder
Francis may have fulfilled the conditions of his release by tying the knot with Eleanor—but he decided to show his displeasure with the union in a cold-hearted way. On the day that Eleanor first entered Paris, the King openly showed himself with his mistress Anne, standing in a window with her for all the public to see for nearly two hours.
And if you thought that was uncomfortable, there was also the matter of his second meeting with Henry VIII.
39. He Kept Messing Up
In 1532, Francis I and Henry VIII were finally due to meet again after the somewhat-disastrous Field of the Cloth of Gold summit. This time, Francis was the tactless one. Henry was bringing his future wife Anne Boleyn, so Francis needed a plus one—but Eleanor was related to Henry’s soon-to-be ex-wife Catherine of Aragon, so that was a no.
Instead, he suggested he just bring his mistress. Faced with this awkward and insulting (for everyone) scenario, Anne just stayed in her guest rooms as Henry and Francis had a bros night. It was all just more evidence that Francis was floundering.
40. He Had A Mean Streak
During the early part of his reign (and unlike many other European rulers), Francis was pretty permissive of the Protestant movement. Well, after his capture and humiliation, he went from progressive to absolutely brutal. This was no more apparent than in the 1534 “Affair of the Placards”. On the night of 17 October 1534, major French cities woke to the sight of flyers on their streets, protesting against the Catholic Mass. Francis’ reaction was incredibly cruel.
41. He Took It Way Too Seriously
Francis began to worry that this was a plot against him personally. As a result, he ordered all suspected Protestants on masse (no pun intended) to be detained, persecuted, and, in many cases, burned. Entire villages were leveled in the aftermath. I’d call him paranoid—but considering what happened next, any paranoia would’ve been warranted.
42. They Were Thirsty For Answers
In 1536, Francis faced a living nightmare—and twisted mystery. At age 18, his son Prince Francis, Duke of Brittany, was enjoying a round of tennis. Parched from exercise, he asked for a glass of water. The healthy boy drank it…then collapsed and perished after several days of illness. The secretary who brought Prince Francis the water was himself brought to France by a new figure on the scene. Her name? Catherine de Medici.
43. He Wanted To Believe His Enemy Was Behind It
Francis’ men used barbaric techniques to get the secretary in question, Count Sebastiano de Montecuccoli, to confess. He said that it was not Catherine who told him to poison the prince—but the King’s foreign enemy, Charles V of Spain. Francis had the secretary executed, but Charles V insisted he had nothing to do with the plot.
History generally agrees the prince passed thanks to sudden tuberculosis, and that Francis’ men violently coerced the Count into confessing guilt.
44. He Had Problems With His Heir
Of course, with his eldest son out of the picture, Francis’s new presumptive heir was his next son, Henry. And to say that Henry had daddy (and mommy) issues would be an understatement. Henry was born entitled, and his time in captivity hadn’t fixed it—in fact, it just made him a little more twisted. For one thing, there was the issue of his mistress.
45. If She Couldn’t Have Him…She’d Take His Son Instead
When Diane de Poitiers first showed up at the French court, she had her eye on Francis I. King Francis appreciated her smarts and political ingenuity, but wasn’t interested in her for more than that—so, in a very ick move, the 35-year-old Diane transferred her affections onto Francis’s 15-year-old son Henry. And that’s not the most twisted part.
46. He Hand-Picked His Son’s Wife
When it came time for Henry to marry, both Francis and Diane agreed on the same candidate: the aforementioned Catherine de Medici. Well, Henry put up with it—but he also flaunted his affair with Diane right in front of his young bride. But that wasn’t the only thing that Henry (or Francis) put Catherine de Medici through…
47. He Liked To Watch
When Francis wed his son Henry to Catherine de Medici, both were just 14 years old. After the festivities were over, the bride and groom retired to their bedchambers—but they weren’t alone. As was the tradition, King Francis and a handful of his trusted advisors watched as his son and Catherine consummated their union—to make sure the deal was fully “sealed”.
48. His Ex Met A Twisted Fate
Remember Francis’s first chief mistress, Françoise de Foix, and the husband who allowed her to cavort with the king? It seemed as though he didn’t care, but when Françoise died, there were rumors that he’d finally taken his rage out on her. One historian even claimed that he kept her locked in a cell before eventually taking her life—a far cry from her days as the king’s paramour.
49. He Had An Unlikely Ally
How much did Francis hate his enemy Charles V? So much, he boldly went where no Christian king had gone before—which is to say, he grew so tired of all the European leaders siding with Charles V that he hooked up with the Ottoman Empire. Francis was the first ruler to make a diplomatic alliance between a Christian and non-Christian empire, and it caused a heck of a scandal.
At this point, Francis was so determined to capture territories in Italy, he didn’t care who he teed off.
50. He Kept Trying And Failing
Francis initiated another set of conflicts in Italy, perhaps hoping to avenge his and his sons’ captivities. Unfortunately, it blew up in his face. Francis was also sending out fleets in the New World and Asia, hoping to expand his circle of influence. Before long, he was out of both money and allies. After a few years, had to call it quits.
51. He Lashed Out Against Those Closest To Him
Francis was paranoid that his greatest enemy, Charles V, was out to get him—but he also worried about those within the court. And he may have had good reason. In 1544, his mistress Anne began to suspect Francis’s son Henry and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, were plotting to bring back a courtier the king had banished. Francis’s reaction was ice cold.
He expelled Diane de Poitiers from court—infuriating Henry. The two didn’t speak for months but eventually reconciled. It’s a good thing, because they didn’t have much time left.
52. He’d Had Enough
According to legend, Francis I spent his last, feverish moments lamenting the crown on his head. He thought it was a gift from God at first—but on his deathbed, he realized what it really was: a curse. Soon after, he passed—and when doctors cut open his body, they made a disturbing discovery. The pressures of being king had ravaged his body, and they found “an abscess in the stomach, his kidneys shriveled, his entrails putrefied, his throat corroded, and one of his lungs in shreds”.
53. It Was Time
Many kings go before their time, leaving heirs that are too young or unable to reign on their own. Not the case with Francis I. He died on the same day that his son and successor, Henry II, turned 28. After all, what’s a better birthday gift than a crown? Unfortunately, Francis’s greatest enemy, Charles V, outlived him. You can’t win em all!
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22