François was willing to ally with anyone who would help bring the emperor low; in 1531 he allied himself with the German Protestant princes angered by Charles V’s brother Ferdinand’s election as King of the Romans[i]. But the alliance fell out over François’ treatment of his own protestant subjects.
The Affair of the Placards led to savage persecution of the Huguenots which undermined French relations with their protestant allies. Europe was further shocked by the contrast between this and François’ alliance with the infidel Ottoman Empire, interfering with the Hapsburg lands in Hungary. When in 1535 Charles V decided to act against the Barbary pirates in the western Mediterranean it provided François with an excuse for yet another fight with his opponent, saying;
‘If the emperor arms, I cannot but do the same.’[ii]
Charles took Tunis, but François failed to take advantage of his absence having given a promise not to do so, much to the chagrin of Admiral Chabot and his group of warmongers.
In February 1536 when the Duchy of Milan fell vacant François invaded Duchy of Savoy whose ruler was Charles V’s brother-in-law. By May France and the Holy Roman Empire were at war in all but name. When the imperial army marched into Piedmont the Marquis of Saluzzo, leading the French forces, defected to the enemy. At the end of March the French had overrun the duchy. Charles countered this move by having Henri of Nassau invade northern France.
Death and the Dauphin
|The Dauphin Francois|
By August 1536 François and the boys were in Lyons, well back from the fighting[iii]. On 1st the Dauphin played a game of tennis with one of his gentlemen; after the match he sent his secretary Sebastian de Monteccucoli [iv]for a glass of iced water[v] and immediately collapsed after drinking it. Young François developed a high fever and was moved to Tournon. He died on 10th August[vi].
François had only been informed that his son was unwell[vii], and now it fell to the Cardinal of Lorraine[viii] to inform the king that his heir was dead. François may have felt guilty about his many carpings about what he saw as the Dauphin’s failings following his return from Spain. His opinion of his heir had mellowed since then, but now François turned to his least favourite son to inform him and his wife that they were now the Dauphin and Dauphine of France. François then lectured Henri;
‘Do all that you can to be like he was, surpass him in virtue so that those who now mourn and regret his passing will have their sorrow eased. I command you to make this your aim with all your heart and soul.’[ix]
This advice from a father who normally did his best to ignore Henri’s very existence must have seemed like hypocrisy to the grieving adolescent. François did not extend his love and affection to Henri, he gave that to Charles, which was to exacerbate the ill-feeling and rivalry between the two remaining brothers.
|Ferrante di Gonzaga|
The whole court attended the death of Monteccucoli; as a regicide he was dismembered with extreme violence on 7th October 1536 at Lyons. Following Monteccucoli’s execution a distraught François wrote to all the Protestant princes in Germany detailing his son’s death and laying the blame on two imperial generals Antonio de Leyva[x] and Ferrante di Gonzaga.
Gonzaga protested vigorously against the infamies laid at his door, even to the extent of having his cousin, the Duke of Mantua send an ambassador to defend his cousin at the French court. Some hard liners were demanding punitive action against the Holy Roman Emperor.
In return the imperialist apologists pointed out that the two people who benefitted from the Dauphin’s death were the new Dauphin and his wife, who was an Italian and all Italians were well-known to be poisoners. There were those at court who were only too ready to turn suspicious eyes on the new Dauphine.
Catherine found her new position as second lady of France, after Queen Eleanor, under threat. For himself François paid no attention to the imperialist accusation; he seemed taken with his son’s wife and Catherine was allowed to join the ladies who followed the leader of the court, the Duchess d’Étampes To consolidate her own position Catherine, now three years a wife without sign of a child, needed to get pregnant; any value she had had as Duchesse d’Orléans was lost as Dauphine.
|Diane de Poitiers|
Although she was a favourite of François’ Catherine was not to Henri’s taste; she did not attract him sexually, she was not of royal birth and her dowry had never materialised[xi]. Instead Henri turned to an older woman; Diane de Poitiers, with whom Henri was to stay in love with all his life. Diane always wore black and white, in mourning for her husband[xii].
Diane was one of Queen Eleanor’s ladies-in-waiting and was nearly nineteen years older than Henri who became her devoted admirer. It is believed that she did not become his mistress until 1538. Being Henri’s mistress was to earn Diane the undying enmity of the Dauphine.
Diane was the daughter of Jean de Poitiers, the Seigneur de Saint-Vallier. It was rumoured that Diane had been one of François’ mistresses before becoming his son’s lover. In 1552 Lorenzo Contarini, ambassador from the Venetian Republic reported back home;
‘Having been left a widow[xiii], young and beautiful, she was loved and tasted by the King François[xiv], and by others also according to what everyone says. Then she passed into the hands of the present King when he was only Dauphin.’[xv]
Further rumours claimed that François, annoyed with Henri’s melancholy and uncouth manner had Diane engage Henri’s affections that she might give the Dauphin some polish.
Taking the Fight to the Enemy
While François had been fighting in the north the imperial army had planned an invasion of Provence where Anne de Montmorency lay in wait. The imperialist armies crossed the French border on 13th July. Charles was able to lead his army to Aix-en-Provence but could get no further. The supply chain[xvi] was ravaged by starving peasants and the local towns were said to be impregnable. Charles waited at Aix, hoping for the French to proffer battle.
Henri begged his father to be allowed to join Montmorency in Provence, but François was determined not to lose another son. Eventually he was worn down by Henri’s determination and in September Henri was permitted to march south to where Montmorency was following a scorched earth policy that eventually drove the imperial army back to Italy.
Campaigning together cemented the friendship between Montmorency and Henri; Henri wrote to Montmorency;
‘Be sure that whatever happens, I am and shall be for my life as much your friend as anyone in the world.’[xvii]
Henri was to remain true to his word.
While campaigning in Italy Henri got the sister of his one of his Piedmontese grooms pregnant[xviii]. Filippa Ducci had been a virgin before meeting the prince who apparently only spent one night in Filippa’s bed. This upped the pressure on Catherine to produce an heir[xix]. After the campaign in the south Diane became Henri’s mistress; Montmorency loaned his chateau at Écouen[xx] for their trysts. Henceforth Henri too was to wear only black and white and took the crescent moon as his emblem.
Martyrs and Murderers – Stuart Carroll, Oxford University Press 2009
Catherine de Medici – Leonie Frieda, a Phoenix Paperback 2003
Charles V – Harald Kleinschmidt, Sutton Publishing 2004
French Renaissance Monarchy – RJ Knecht, Longman Group 1996
The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France – RJ Knecht, Fontana Press 1996
Catherine de’ Medici – RJ Knecht, Pearson Education Ltd 1998
A History of France – David Potter, The MacMillan Press 1995
Prince of the Renaissance – Desmond Seward, MacMillan Publishing 1973
Emperor Charles V – James D Tracey, Cambridge University Press 2010
Henri II – H Noel Williams, Methuen and Co 1910 (reprint 2016)
[i] The title of the future Holy Roman Emperor
[ii] French Renaissance Monarchy - Knecht
[iii] The army considered the king as a symbol of bad luck following the battle of Pavia and his generals had persuaded François, eager to regain his early glory, to stay away from the battlefield
[iv] Monteccucoli had previously served Charles V, but had come to France in the service of Catherine de’ Medici. A book of toxicology was found in his apartment (a common interest among Italians at the time) and he was accused of poisoning the Dauphin, something he admitted to under torture but later recanted.
[v] François rarely drank wine but drank what the court considered immoderate amounts of water
[vi] With François’ death Brittany became part of France, losing its separate status it had hitherto enjoyed
[viii] Uncle of Henri’s friend François de Guise
[ix] Catherine de Medici - Frieda
[x] Who had died the previous month
[xi] Her uncle the pope had died in 1534, after which the de’ Medicis lost any strategic interest in Catherine
[xii] There are several portraits of Henri in dressed in white or black to compliment her
[xiv] Very possibly nothing more than an idle rumour to hurt the reputation of the king’s mistress
[xv] Henri II - Williams
[xvii] Catherine de Medici - Frieda
[xix] Henri and Catherine were married ten years before Catherine had her first child
[xx] North of Paris