Francis I: The Maker of Modern France

by Leonie Frieda, Orion, 352pp, £25

Good English biographies of French kings are rare. So Leonie Frieda’s life of Francis I is welcome. If he is remembered at all this side of the Channel, it is for his role in that absurd piece of summitry, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where he and his perennial rival, enemy, and occasional ally Henry VIII preened themselves and showed off at enormous expense, with no useful outcome. Futile extravagance was a feature of Francis’s life and reign, but at least “Le Roi Chevalier”, though often foolish, wasn’t a callous brute like Henry Tudor. No wives were beheaded, and indeed, though Francis had a succession of mistresses, he appears to have been kind to his misshapen, though intelligent, wife.

Frieda claims that he was the maker of modern France. It’s natural for biographers to exaggerate their subject’s importance, and publishers respond, rarely being interested in books about nonentities. It is, however, a claim that scarcely stands up.

Francis was possessed of a more glittering personality than his two, rather dim, immediate predecessors, and it’s reasonable to applaud him as a Renaissance Prince interested in fostering the arts, even briefly employing Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini, and building or extending some of the gorgeous chateaux of the Loire. But he didn’t in any sense re-order the state – it’s difficult to believe that the 32 years of his reign left any enduring mark. Probably no monarch can really be said to have been the maker of modern France, but if anyone has a claim to the title it is surely Napoleon, the heir to the Revolution and creator of France’s legal code and education system.

Francis was for most of his reign engaged in war against his rivals, the Emperor Charles V (who also ruled Spain) and Henry of England. Just as Henry inherited the by-now ludicrous English claim to the French throne, so Francis inherited the ambition to establish France as a power in Italy. He met with success at first, his victory at Marignano (1515) securing the Duchy of Milan, and encouraging hopes of conquering Naples too. But all his triumphs were short-lasting. Alliances were fickle, victories melted away.

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