In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Francis I, King of France

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Monarchy
  • Political Thought
  • France Overseas

Renaissance and Reformation Francis I, King of France
Robert Knecht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0081


Francis I, king of France from 1515 to 1547, has not always been treated by posterity with the seriousness he deserves. The French historian Jules Michelet (b. 1798–d. 1874), who has exerted a long-standing influence on popular notions of the past among his countrymen, dismissed him as a “fine talker” who allowed himself to be ruled by women, principally his mother and sister. As a child of the French Revolution, Michelet despised Francis for not having assumed leadership of the Protestant revolt against the Roman Catholic Church. Francis has also been largely eclipsed by the brilliance of the Sun King, Louis XIV. But all this has now changed. Since the 1950s there has been a revival of interest in the Renaissance and the Reformation. Francis was a central figure in both. As king, he laid the foundations of the “absolute” monarchy that was to flourish in the next century under Louis XIV. Though not entirely successful in his long struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Francis successfully resisted his claim to the duchy of Burgundy, which, if conceded, would have dismantled the kingdom of France. Faced by the challenge of the Protestant Reformation that shattered the religious unity of his kingdom, Francis took the fateful decision to uphold the Catholic faith. He also supported some of the earliest French expeditions to the New World. On the cultural level, his legacy was second to none. Presiding over the most magnificent court north of the Alps, in which women assumed a more significant presence than in the past, he built numerous châteaus, patronized some of the most illustrious artists of his day, built up a superb library, and paved the way for the prestigious Collège de France in Paris—not a bad record for a ruler once dismissed as a lightweight.

General Overviews

Recent overviews of France’s history in the first half of the 16th century supersede older narrative accounts, such as the famous history of France by Ernest Lavisse. Both Potter 1995 and Hamon 2009 depart from the traditional division around 1500 between medieval and modern times. Beautifully illustrated, Hamon 2009 stresses the revival that took place on several fronts, economic, social, and religious, following the end of the Hundred Years’ War, hence the author’s pluralizing of the word “Renaissance.” Holt 2002 takes the story beyond the reign of Francis I into the period of the religious wars. Jouanna 1996 brings the author’s intimate knowledge of social history to bear on her lucid synthesis. Knecht 2001 sees the political crisis of 1559 as a pivotal moment in the history of France, when the so-called golden century succumbed to chaos and bloodshed.

  • Hamon, Philippe. Les Renaissances, 1453–1559. Paris: Belin, 2009.

    A welcome departure from the traditional division of French history in 1483 between the medieval and modern periods. Such a division only makes sense politically; it fails to recognize the continuous period of economic growth and social recovery that began around the mid-15th century.

  • Holt, Mack P., ed. Renaissance and Reformation France. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    This volume in the Oxford Short History of France series provides a thematic history written by five leading historians, covering the period from 1500 to 1648. Each chapter focuses on a specific aspect of the period: politics and the state, the economy, society and culture, religion, gender, and the family.

  • Jouanna, Arlette. La France du XVIe siècle, 1483–1598. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1996.

    This book by one of the most lucid and objective historians of the period is particularly strong on the economic, social, and constitutional background. It challenges the idea of a “beautiful 16th century” ending in 1560. The author shows that “difficulties began to accumulate as early as 1520, more or less heavily according to the provinces.”

  • Knecht, R. J. The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483–1610. 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    The title requires a gloss. “Rise” may be construed as a move toward political order, economic prosperity, and social contentment, “fall” as a lapse into political confusion, economic depression, and social unrest. This second edition of a work first published in 1996 takes into account much new research. In particular, it tempers praise of Francis I as the “father of letters.”

  • Potter, David. A History of France, 1460–1560: The Emergence of a Nation State. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-23848-4

    A welcome departure from the traditional division, inspired mainly by cultural historians, of a break in 1494 between medieval and modern. As Potter demonstrates, the nation that evolved thereafter can be understood only in relation to its past. Not the least of the virtues of this book is the rich bibliography.

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