france glenn richardson
Architect of State Francis I: The Maker of Modern France
By Leonie Frieda (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 352pp £25)
Emmanuel Macron, it seems, is a leader of France who has great personal charm and determination – enough charm, indeed, judged by their recent meeting, to delight even that most lumpen of creatures, his American counterpart, Donald Trump. He has much in common, then (except height), with King Francis I, who, according to the subtitle of Leonie Frieda’s new biography, was ‘the maker of modern France’.
That is a bold claim for Frieda to make. Francis, she asserts, has been neglected and languishes in an obscurity from which she undertakes to rescue him. She promised to do the same for Francis’s daughter-inlaw Catherine de’ Medici, whose presence crowds unnecessarily into this book, in her 2004 biography of her. Whether Francis’s modern reputation actually needs rescuing is open to question.
In fact, Francis has been the subject of considerable research, scholarship and reappraisal over the quarter century since the 1994 quincentenary of his birth. This work has shown that the king was not entirely the sex-obsessed, quixotic airhead that the likes of the 19th-century historian Jules Michelet, the author Victor Hugo and the bulk of popular biographies that followed made him out to be. When the evidence is adduced effectively, it shows that, in common with his European contemporaries, Francis saw himself as having to be essentially three things: a great warrior, a great patron in every sense of the term and a great governor. He was deeply conscious of securing the achievements of his dynasty, even of his immediate predecessor, Louis XII, the cousin and father-in-law whom he succeeded in 1515 and who (contrary to the view posed in this book) had little time for him.
Francis was never history’s greatest military strategist and he knew disaster as much as triumph on the battlefield. In September 1515, at the Battle of Marignano, he won the duchy of Milan with a series of determined cavalry charges against the Swiss mercenaries of his Sforza opponent.
A decade later, he was defeated and captured at Pavia following an impetuous cavalry charge against the forces of his bitter enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Evidently learning the lessons of this loss, in the 1530s Francis had better, if less glamorous, tactical success against Charles. Over the course of his 32-year reign, in competition with the emperor and with Henry VIII of England, Francis made France a force to be reckoned with.
In order to achieve this, he made France a coherently governable, if never entirely unitary kingdom. In considering military restructuring, changes in the crown’s financial and administrative capabilities, legal reform and the suppression of heresy, recent research has recast notions of Francis’s supposed ‘absolutist’ (whatever that means) government substantially. Francis was certainly authoritarian in outlook, but it has been shown that his regime operated as much by compromise and deal-making as it did by clarion calls for submission to the royal will – all monarchies did. Francis was, on the whole, a very effective political patron who understood the expectations of his nobility well. Contrary to the anachronistic view expressed in Frieda’s account, the distribution of the king’s favour was not mere nepotism but a vital ingredient in maintaining royal power. It was for this reason, for example, that the size and complexity of the French court increased during his reign.
The desire to maintain power also lay
£1,000 essay prize encouraging the art of essay-writing with a European dimension open July 1st 2018 www.hubertbutleressayprize.com behind the outstanding artistic and architectural patronage for which he is probably now best known. He built the Renaissance wing at the chateau of Blois that now bears his name, and renovated the Louvre and the chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris. He built Chambord and the palace of Fontainebleau, with its famous gallery, decorated by Il Rosso and Francesco Primaticcio. He founded lectureships at the University of Paris, increased the royal library’s collection of ancient Greek manuscripts and patronised Jean and François Clouet, whose vivid portraits of the king and his courtiers rival those Holbein did for his ‘good brother and friend’ Henry VIII. Francis was, without doubt, the king who ‘made’ early modern France, and his greatest successor, Louis XIV, looked back admiringly to him for precisely this reason.
Of this King Francis, however, we find little in Frieda’s book. The claim of its subtitle is never directly addressed, much less substantiated. Despite its implied claims to revision and its allusions to recent scholarship, this is a very conventional biography in the older tradition referred to above. It is not genuinely reinterpretive. It owes much to Desmond Seward’s 1973 biography, and particularly to R J Knecht’s 1994 Renaissance Warrior and Patron. Seward is a highly successful biographer but no expert on Francis I. Knecht is, but while Frieda’s narrative structure leans very heavily on his account, she cannot distil for her readers its complexity or insights. The flyleaf refers to the author’s use of ‘never-before-seen private archives’, but neither in the text or footnotes is the import of this source evident. Incidentally, the ‘Public Record Office, London’, cited in the bibliography, has not existed since 2003, when it was incorporated into the National Archives at Kew.
This is a readable narrative, full of breathlessly related incident, but it affords the reader little understanding of who Francis actually was and why he matters for the history of France. Frieda is clearly on the king’s side and she makes him an appealing figure, to be sure. But there was a great deal more to Francis I and his governing of Renaissance France than is related here, just as there is more to governing modern France than mere charm – something President Macron is rapidly learning. To order this book from the Literary Review Bookshop, see page 26.
Literary Review | july 2018 10