It was not to be expected that so volatile a monarch would be content to surrender all the hopes that had agitated his predecessors for adding Milan, and if possible Naples, as brilliants in the French crown. Louis XII had accepted the natural limits of France—had recognized, so to speak, the sovereignty of the Alps. Francis withdrew the recognition, and challenged the right of Duke Maximilian Sforza to Milan. During several months of negotiations he collected and equipped an immense force. In August 1515, he led it by a new and perilous path—blasting his way across rocky cliffs—over the Alps and down into Italy. At Marignano, nine miles from Milan, the French knights and infantry met Sforza’s Swiss mercenaries in two days (September 13–14, 1515) of such killing as Italy had not known since the barbarian invasions; 10,000 men were left dead on the ground. Time and again the French seemed defeated, when the King himself charged to the front and rallied his troops by the example of his daring. It was customary for a ruler victorious in battle to reward special bravery by creating new knights on the field; but before doing this Francis, in an unprecedented but characteristic gesture, knelt before Pierre, Seigneur de Bayard, and asked to be knighted by the hand of the famous Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. Bayard protested that the King was ex officio the knight of knights and needed no dubbing, but the young sovereign, still only twenty-one, insisted. Bayard went through the traditional motions magnificently, and then put away his sword, saying: “Assuredly, my good sword, thou shalt be well guarded as a relic, and honored above all others, for having this day conferred upon so handsome and puissant a king the order of chivalry; and never will I wear thee more except against Turks, Moors, and Saracens!”51Francis entered Milan as its master, sent its deposed Duke to France with a comfortable pension, took also Parma and Piacenza, and signed with Leo X, in splendid ceremonies at Bologna, a treaty and Concordat that allowed both Pope and King to claim a diplomatic victory.

Francis returned to France the idol of his countrymen, and almost of Europe. He had charmed his soldiers by sharing their hardships and outbraving their bravery; and though in his triumph he had indulged his vanity, he tempered it by giving credit to others, softening all egos with words of praise and grace. In the intoxication of fame he made his greatest mistake: he entered his candidacy for the Imperial crown. He was legitimately disturbed by the prospect of having Charles I, King of Spain and Naples and Count of Flanders and Holland, become also head of the Holy Roman Empire—with all those claims to Lombardy, and therefore Milan, for which Maximilian had so repeatedly invaded Italy; within such a new Empire France would be surrounded by apparently invincible enemies. Francis bribed and lost; Charles bribed more, and won (1519). The bitter rivalry began that kept Western Europe in turmoil till within three years of the King’s death.

Charles and Francis never ran out of reasons for hostility. Even before becoming Emperor, Charles had claimed Burgundy through his grandmother Mary, daughter of Charles the Bold, and had refused to recognize the reunion of Burgundy with the French crown. Milan was formally a fief of the Empire. Charles continued the Spanish occupation of Navarre; Francis insisted that it should be returned to his vassal, Henri d’Albret. And above all these casus belli lay the question of questions: Who was to be master of Europe—Charles or Francis? The Turks answered, Suleiman.

Francis struck the first blow. Noting that Charles had on his hands a political revolution in Spain and a religious revolution in Germany, he sent an army across the Pyrenees to recapture Navarre; it was defeated in a campaign whose most important incident was the wounding of Ignatius Loyola (1521). Another army went south to defend Milan; the troops mutinied for lack of pay; they were routed at La Bicocca by Imperial mercenaries, and Milan fell to Charles V (1522). To cap these mishaps the constable of the French armies went over to the Emperor.

Charles, Duke of Bourbon, was head of the powerful family that would rule France from 1589 to 1792. He was the richest man in the country after the King; 500 nobles were among his retainers; he was the last of the great barons who could defy the monarch of the now centralized state. He served Francis well in war, fighting bravely at Marignano; less well in government, alienating the Milanese by his harsh rule. Ill supplied there with funds from the King, he laid out 100,000 livres of his own, expecting to be repaid; he was not. Francis looked with jealous misgiving upon this almost royal vassal. He recalled him from Milan, and offered him thoughtless or intentional affronts that left Bourbon his brooding enemy. The Duke had married Suzanne of Bourbon, whose extensive estates were by her mother’s will to revert to the Crown if Suzanne should die without issue. Suzanne so died (1521), but after making a will that left all her property to her husband. Francis and his mother claimed the property as the most direct descendants of the previous duke of Bourbon; Charles fought the claim; the Parlement of Paris decided against him. Francis proposed a compromise that would let the Duke enjoy the income of the property till his death; he rejected the proposal. Louise, fifty-one, offered herself as a bride to the thirty-one-year-old Duke, with a clear title to the property as her dowry; he refused. Charles V made a rival offer: the hand of his sister Eleonora in marriage, and full support, by Imperial troops, of the Duke’s claims. The Duke accepted, fled by night across the frontier, and was made lieutenant-general of the Imperial army in Italy (1523).

Francis sent Bonnivet against him. Marguerite’s lover proved incompetent; his army was overwhelmed at Romagnano by the Duke; and in the retreat the Chevalier de Bayard, commanding the dangerous rear guard, was fatally wounded by a shot from a harquebus (April 30, 1524). The victorious Bourbon found him dying under a tree, and offered him some consolatory compliments. “My lord,” answered Bayard, “there is pity for me; I die having done my duty; but I have pity for you, to see you serving against your King, your country, and your oath.” 52 The Duke was moved, but had burned all bridges behind him. He entered into an agreement with Charles V and Henry VIII by which all three were to invade France simultaneously, overwhelm all French forces, and divide the land among them. As his part of the bargain the Duke entered Provence, took Aix, and laid siege to Marseille; but his campaign was poorly provisioned, met unexpectedly strong resistance, and collapsed. He retreated into Italy (September 1524).

Francis thought it wise to pursue him and recapture Milan. Bonnivet, foolish to the end, advised him to take Pavia first, and then come upon Milan from the south; the King agreed, and laid siege (August 26, Í524). But here too the defense was superior to the offense; for four months the French host was held at bay, while Bourbon, Charles of Lannoy (Viceroy of Naples), and the Marquis of Pescara (husband of Vittoria Colonna) gathered a new army of 27,000 men. Suddenly this force appeared behind the French; on the same day (February 24, 1525) Francis found his men assaulted on one side by this unexpected multitude, and on the other by a sortie from Pavia. As usual, he fought in the van of the melee, and killed so many of the enemy with his own sword that he thought victory assured. But his generalship was sacrificed to his courage; his forces were poorly deployed; his infantry moved in between his artillery and the foe, making the superior French guns useless. The French faltered; the Duke of Alençon fled, taking the rear guard with him. Francis challenged his disordered army to follow him back into the battle; only the most gallant of his nobles accompanied him, and a slaughter of French chivalry ensued. Francis received wounds in the face, on the arms and legs, but struck out tirelessly; his horse collapsed under him; still he fought. His loyal knights fell one by one till he was left alone. He was surrounded by enemy soldiers, and was about to be slain when an officer recognized him, saved him, and led him to Lannoy, who with low bows of respect accepted his sword.

The fallen King was confined in the fortress of Pizzighettone near Cremona, whence he was allowed to send his oft quoted, oft misquoted letter to his mother, who was ruling France in his absence:

TO THE REGENT OF FRANCE: Madame, that you may know how stands the rest of my misfortune: there is nothing in the world left to me but honor and my life, which is saved (de toute chose ne m’est demeuré que I’honneur et la vie, qui est sauvée). And in order that in your adversity this news might bring you some little comfort, I prayed for permission to write you this letter .... entreating you, in the exercise of your accustomed prudence, to do nothing rash, for I have hope, after all, that God will not forsake me....53

He sent a similar note to Marguerite, who answered both:

MY LORD: The joy we are still feeling at the kind letters which you were pleased to write yesterday to me and your mother, makes us so happy with the assurance of your health, on which our life depends, that it seems to me that we ought to think of nothing but of praising God and desiring a continuance of your good news, which is the best meat we can have to live on. And inasmuch as the Creator has given us grace that our trinity should be always united, the other two do entreat you that this letter, presented to you who arethe third, may be accepted with the same affection with which it is cordially offered you by your most humble and obedient servants, your mother and sister,


To the Emperor at Madrid Francis wrote a very humble letter telling him that “if it please you to have so much honorable pity as to answer for the safety which a captive king of France deserves to find... you may be sure of obtaining an acquisition instead of a useless prisoner, and of making a king of France your slave forever.” 55 Francis had not been trained to misfortune.

Charles received the news of his victory calmly, and refused to celebrate it, as many suggested, with a splendid festival. He retired into his bedroom (we are told), and knelt in prayer. To Francis and Louise he sent what seemed to him moderate terms for peace and the liberation of the King. (1) France must give up Burgundy and all claims to Flanders, Artois, and Italy. (2) All lands and dignities claimed by the Duke of Bourbon must be surrendered to him. (3) Provence and Dauphiné should be made an independent state. (4) France must restore to England all French territory formerly held by Britain—i.e., Normandy, Anjou, Gascony, and Guienne. (5) Francis must sign an alliance with the Emperor, and join him in a campaign against the Turks. Louise answered that France would not yield an inch of territory, and was prepared to defend itself to the last man. The Regent acted now with an energy, resolution, and intelligence that made the French people forgive her headstrong faults. She arranged at once for the organization and equipment of new armies, and set them to guard all points of possible invasion. To keep the Emperor’s mind off France, she urged Suleiman of Turkey to defer his attack on Persia and undertake instead a westward campaign; we do not know what part her plea played in the Sultan’s decision, but in 1526 he marched into Hungary, and inflicted so disastrous a defeat upon the Christian army at Mohács that any invasion of France by Charles would have been deemed treason to Christendom. Meanwhile Louise pointed out to Henry VIII and Clement VII how both England and the papacy would be reduced to bondage if the Emperor were allowed all the territory that he demanded. Henry wavered; Louise persisted, and offered him an “indemnity” of 2,000,000 crowns; he signed a defensive and offensive alliance with France (August 30, 1525). This female diplomacy opened male eyes, and shattered Charles’s confidence.

By agreement among Louise, Lannoy, and the Emperor, the captive King was transported to Spain. When Francis reached Valencia (July 2, 1525), Charles sent him a courteous letter, but his treatment of his prisoner went no further toward chivalry. Francis was assigned a narrow room in an old castle in Madrid, under rigorous vigilance; the sole freedom allowed him was to ride on a mule near the castle, under watch of armed and mounted guards. He asked Charles for an interview; Charles put it off, and allowed two weeks of fretting confinement to incline Francis toward paying a heavy price for liberty. Louise offered to meet the Emperor and negotiate, but he thought it better to play upon his prisoner than have a woman charm him into lenience. She informed him that her daughter Marguerite, now a widow, “would be happy if she could be agreeable to his Imperial Majesty,” but he preferred Isabella of Portugal, who, with a dowry of 900,000 crowns, could provide him at once with bed and board. After two months of anxious imprisonment, Francis fell dangerously ill. The Spanish people, regretting the Emperor’s severity, went to their churches to pray for the French King. Charles prayed too, for a dead ruler would be worthless as a political pawn. He visited Francis briefly, promised him an early release, and sent permission to Marguerite to come and comfort her brother.

Marguerite sailed from Aiguesmortes (August 27, 1525) to Barcelona, and thence was carried by slow and tortuous litter through half the length of Spain to Madrid. She consoled herself with writing poetry, and sending characteristically fervent messages to the King. “Whatever may be required of me, though it be to fling to the winds the ashes of my bones to do you service, nought will be strange or difficult or painful to me, but will be solace, ease of mind, honor.” 56 When at last she reached the bedside of her brother she found him apparently recovering; but on September 25 he had a relapse, fell into a coma, and seemed to be dying. Marguerite and the household knelt and prayed, and a priest administered the sacrament. A tedious convalescence followed. Marguerite stayed with Francis a month, then went to Toledo to appeal to the Emperor. He received her pleas coldly; he had learned of Henry’s league with France, and longed to punish the duplicity of his late ally, and the audacity of Louise.

Francis had one card left to play, though it would almost certainly mean his lifelong imprisonment. Having warned his sister to leave Spain as quickly as possible, he signed (November 1525) a formal letter of abdication in favor of his eldest son; and since this second Francis was a boy of only eight years, he named Louise—and, in case of her death, Marguerite—as regent of France. Charles saw at once that a king without a kingdom, with nothing to surrender, would be useless. But Francis had more physical than moral courage. On January 14, 1526, he signed with Charles the Treaty of Madrid. Its terms were essentially those that the Emperor had proposed to Louise; they were even more severe, for they required that the two oldest sons of the King should be handed over to Charles as hostages for the faithful execution of the agreement. Francis further consented to marry the Emperor’s sister Eleonora, Queen-Dowager of Portugal; and he swore that if he should fail to carry out the terms of the treaty he would return to Spain to resume imprisonment.57 However, on August 22, 1525, he had deposited with his aides a paper nullifying in advance “all pacts, conventions, renunciations, quittances, revocations, derogations, and oaths that he might have to make contrary to his honor and the good of his crown”; and on the eve of signing the treaty he repeated this statement to his French negotiators, and declared that “it was through force and constraint, confinement, and length of imprisonment that he was signing; and that all that was contained in it was and should remain null and of no effect.” 58

On March 17, 1526, Viceroy Lannoy delivered Francis to Marshal Lautrec on a barge in the Bidassoa River, which separates Spanish Irun from French Hendaye; and in return Lannoy received Princes Francis and Henry. Their father gave them a blessing and a tear, and hurried on to French soil. There he leaped upon a horse, cried joyfully, “I am a king again!” and rode on to Bayonne, where Louise and Marguerite awaited him. At Bordeaux and Cognac he spent three months in sports to recover his health, and indulged in a little love; had he not been a monk for a year? Louise, who had quarreled with the Comtesse de Chateaubriand, had brought with her a pretty, blonde-haired maid of honor, eighteen years old, Anne de Heilly de Pisselieu, who, as planned, struck the King’s famished eye. He wooed her in haste, and soon won her as his mistress; and from that moment till death parted them the new favorite shared with Louise and Marguerite the heart of the King. She put up patiently with his marriage to Eleonora, and with his incidental liaisons. To save appearances he gave her a husband, Jean de Brosse, made him Due, and her Duchesse, d’Etampes, and smiled appreciatively when Jean retired to a distant estate in Britanny.

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