Good friends and brothers? Francis I and Henry VIII.

by Glenn Richardson

On April 27th, 1989, at Sangatte on the northern coast of France, a ceremony was held to mark the commencement of the main work on the Channel Tunnel. At the tunnel entrance stood two giant pasteboard figures. One was of Henry VIII of England and the other was of Francis I of France. Their symbolic presence at the beginning of an ambitious project designed to link England and France was especially appropriate.

Henry VIII is often called a |Renaissance prince' and is popularly remembered for his ebullience and the extraordinariness of his reign. What is often not so well appreciated, is the extent to which his style of monarchy and the events of his reign were influenced by his relationship with that other |Renaissance prince', Francis I. Rarely, since their time, have France and England been so drawn together by some higher ideal or imperative. Now it is the single market and European unity. Then, it was magnificent, competitive, kingship.

Francis of Angouleme was born at Cognac in western France on September 12th, 1494. The Angouleme family was a cadet branch of the royal house of Valois. Francis' father, Charles, died on January 1st, 1496, and in 1498, the boy became heir presumptive to the reigning monarch. Louis XII. From the age of fourteen Francis lived at court and was soon known in Italy and England as the rising star of France. Louis XII died leaving no surviving son and Francis succeeded him as king on January 1st, 1515.

Francis's accession was greeted favourably by the French nobility. He was young, healthy, full of confidence and he immediately rejuvenated the French court. His mother, Louise of Savoy, who was a great patron of artists and intellectuals, had ensured that her son had been well educated, at least by contemporary noble standards.

Francis was inspired by dreams of royal greatness and chivalric glory. This was reflected in the iconography of the early part of his reign. A recent French study has identified more than a dozen different topoi of kingship which were produced under Louise of Savoy's patronage and which were taken up by the king himself. Among the most important were; Francis as the crusading roi chevalier, as the descendant of Charlemagne, and especially, as Julius Caesar's true successor. Royal propaganda promoted two ideals or hopes for Francis's reign. These were just and effective government at home and, abroad, the revival of a French imperial heritage.

In line with these ideals, Francis soon invaded northern Italy. He was determined to avenge the defeats which Louis XII had suffered there and to capture the duchy of Milan which he regarded as his inheritance. Although this ambition drew much of Europe against him, it became the fixed point of Francis I's foreign policy throughout his reign.

Initially, he enjoyed outstanding success. On September 14th, 1515, at the Battle of Marignano, Francis defeated a large Swiss army allied to the duke of Milan and so regained the duchy. He secured his prize by a concordat with Leo X and, later, by treaties with the Swiss, with Charles of Spain and with the Holy Roman Emperor, Maxmillian.

In England, all of this was watched with increasing unease. Henry VIII's accession in 1509 had generated the same kind of excitement as witnessed in France in 1515. The two kings did indeed have many personal similarities and rivalry between them was almost inevitable. Like Francis, Henry dreamed of martial glory and wanted to make a major impact on Europe. The young Tudor's great role-model was Henry V and he regarded northern France as his inheritance, rather in the way Francis saw Milan.

In 1513, Henry had invaded France in alliance with the pope, the emperor and the king of Spain. He had hoped for his own Agincourt but enjoyed rather more limited success. He won a cavalry skirmish called |the Battle of the Spurs' and captured the towns of Therouanne and Tournai. Nevertheless, these victories and the subsequent peace treaty with Louis XII, allowed Henry to feel that controlling France was a great way of demonstrating his own impressive royal power.

The French victory over the Swiss at Marignano did much the same thing for Francis. it also eclipsed anything which Henry VIII had accomplished in 1513 and both kings knew it. By 1517 Francis's various alliances had isolated England and he now wanted Tournai back. Henry was desperate to curb Francis' ambition but lacked the means to go to war directly. However, his great minister, Cardinal Wolsey, understood before the king did, that war was not the only way to assert one's international prominence.

Early in 1518 Wolsey persuaded Henry that by hijacking Pope Leo X's recently-announced plans for a truce between the European princes, he could make a virtue of his necessity and hopefully still get Francis back under control. And that is exactly what happened. In October 1518 the Treaty of London was signed which established a |Universal Peace' and an international league between the European princes under Henry VIII's aegis. War was made prohibitive because all parties agreed to defend any one signatory attacked by another. Francis had little choice but to participate and the agreement was sealed by the betrothal of Henry's daughter Mary, to Francis's eldest son, Francois. Round two of the competition went to Henry.

The two kings maintained their mutual ambivalence but were now allied and called themselves |good friends and brothers'. The upshot was that for long periods thereafter, the English and French courts engaged in an intensely competitive interchange focused on the two kings. This interaction was designed to assert superior international status and political dominance through every means other than military confrontation. It was conducted through magnificent, ritualistic displays of royal friendship.

One king could only conduct a generous and equal friendship with another if he had sufficient resources. Therefore extravagant displays of friendship became assertions of personal, dynastic and national security. They were as much warnings against aggression as invitations to co-operation. At times, such as in 1518, these displays involved sending and receiving large embassies. For most of the time they were conducted through permanent ambassadors exchanged by the two kings.

The most important type of ambassadors were the close companions of the two kings, men who knew them well, who dressed and entertained them. In France they were known as the gentilhommes de la chambre du roi and in England, following the French model, they were called Gentlemen of the King's Privy Chamber. Being the intimate servants of their sovereign, these men enjoyed high status and their presence in the other king's court demanded exceptional treatment. Before long it was customary for English Gentlemen to be allowed access to the French king's chamber and vice versa. There, such ambassadors could escape the usual distancing formalities and were more able to appreciate potential difficulties. They could also provide their king with detailed accounts of his rival's character and demeanour. On their visits they brought personal letters from their master as well as gifts such as hunting equipment, swords, armour, horses and dogs, jewellery and pictures. These interchanges fed the mutual curiosity of the kings and enabled them to realise that they did, in fact, have much in common and viewed the world in a similar way. Much of this activity was genuinely enjoyed by both sides. Nevertheless, it remained competitive and its essential characteristic was always strict reciprocity.

During 1519 both kings competed to succeed Maxmillian as Holy Roman Emperor. Charles of Spain was elected instead, and it was against this background, that Francis met Henry VIII for the first time in June 1520 at the renowned encounter of the |Field of the Cloth of Gold'. The dynamics of the event were exactly as those described above. Great care was taken to ensure that each ruler was sufficiently honoured by the other. Vast amounts of money were spent by both sides on jousts, pageants, banquets and masques. Henry saw the occasion as Francis' public acknowledgement of his superiority under the Treaty of London. For Francis, on the other hand, it expressed his expectation that Henry would esteem his friendship over that of Charles V.

Almost immediately after the imperial election Charles and Francis had begun fighting in Luxembourg and Navarre. In 1521 Wolsey called an arbitration conference at Calais under the terms of the Treaty of London. However, he could not, and perhaps did not want to, resolve the conflict. He saw that England would have to enter the war sooner or later and that he must keep Henry on the winning side. By the end of the summer, Henry and Charles V were allies in a projected invasion of France.

The invasion, commanded for Henry by Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, took place in September 1523. Despite a promising start, bad weather, disease and unreliable allies forced Suffolk to withdraw. The continental war continued and Francis attempted once again to recapture Milan which had been lost during 1521. This time he did not succeed. On February 24th, 1525, the French suffered a catastrophic defeat at Pavia. The king himself was captured and imprisoned for a year in Spain. Henry VIII was ecstatic at the news. However, his |great enterprise' of conquering and dividing France with Charles had to be shelved for lack of finances and the emperor's disinterest. The Anglo-Imperial alliance notwithstanding, Henry did not wish to see Charles become complete master of Europe. Once again therefore, he made a virtue of necessity and supported Francis. The French monarch certainly needed help at this time. In order to obtain his freedom he had agreed to cede the duchy of Burgundy to Charles V and to give his sons, the Dauphin Francois and Henri, duc d'Orleans, as hostages.

The king returned to France in March 1526 desperate to get his sons back and to escape the onerous terms of his release. Friendly ties with England were quickly re-established. Francis agreed to pay Henry a sizeable pension and ambassadors of the chamber were again regularly exchanged. In late 1526, Francis I's sister, Marguerite of Navarre, sent Henry miniature portraits of her nephews to excite his sympathy. Henry reciprocated with miniatures of himself and Princess Mary which are among the earliest examples of this art form produced in England.

By the beginning of 1527 Henry wished to divorce Mary's mother, Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey therefore proposed another grand international peace which would at once put Henry at the forefront of international politics and enable him quickly to settle the king's |great matter'. Francis was enthusiastic. Accordingly, in 1527, the 1518 treaty of Universal peace was replaced by one of |Eternal peace'. The celebrations for this alliance deliberately recalled those of 1518 but were yet more extravagant and expensive. Henry built a |disguising house' at Greenwich which was decorated in the most up-to-date classical or |antique' style favoured in Italy and France. The building was created essentially as a showcase for the artistic and technical talents of the king's painter, Hans Holbein, and Nicholas Kratzer, the astronomer royal.

At the conclusion of the festivities, Henry presented the leader of the French party with a suit of armour made at his workshops at Greenwich. This featured an improved type of cuirass, the prototype of which had been given to Henry, by Francis, in 1520. The clear message of the whole occasion was that Henry was a monarch of international standing and that anything Francis could do, he could do better. In November 1527, the kings exchanged membership of their respective chivalric orders.

Unfortunately for Wolsey, things did not go according to his plan. In July 1529 Clement VII revoked Henry's divorce case to Rome. At Cambrai the following month, Charles agreed that Francis could ransom his sons and convert his obligations into a cash debt. Instead of presiding over this settlement, Henry was again isolated and this disastrous situation precipitated Wolsey's fall. After Cambrai, Francis was much less dependent on Henry than he had been. Nevertheless, Henry agreed to help him pay the huge debt to Charles through cash payments and forgoing part of his French pension. In return, he wanted Francis' unequivocal support for his divorce case.

The early 1530s were busy years for Francis. He implemented some major financial reforms designed to centralise and regularise the collection of royal revenue. He was asked to settle disputes between the conservative Sorbonne and several humanists whose writings it had deemed heretical. He also began several important architectural projects. These included building the chateau of Madrid (just outside Paris) and improving his chateau at Fontainebleau. The work here was carried out by a number of French and Italian artists, notably Giovanni Battista Rosso and Francesco Primaticcio. The best, and only, surviving example of Rosso's work at Fontainebleau is the Galerie Francois Ier of which the king was justly proud.

During the 1530s Francis had agents in Italy and elsewhere collecting paintings, sculptures and books to add to the royal collection. He was also busy politically. While observing the letter of the Treaty of Cambrai, he organised opposition to the emperor in the German states and sought allies throughout Europe and beyond.

In England, Francis found an ally in the person of Anne Boleyn who virtually replaced Wolsey as the lynch-pin in Anglo-French contacts. Anne had been educated for some time in France and she appreciated the cultural sophistication of the French court. Like Wolsey before her, Anne encouraged continued exchanges between the two monarchs and she also patronised English scholars in France. Francis gave paintings, salt cellars, chains and cups to various English nobles and to the king and queen.

Parisian goldsmiths, jewellers, and clockmakers also visited England and sold directly to Henry and his courtiers. Parisian craftsmen enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for high quality and their work incorporated the latest Italian or German decorative and technological developments. The existence, in England, of examples of such work influenced the commissions given to local artisans. Their successful efforts at producing works of a similar design and standard are attested to by even the few remaining examples of the many gifts exchanged between the king and his courtiers during the next twenty years.

Anne Boleyn herself owned several beautifully illuminated French bibles and prayer books. One of these books, entitled Le Pasteur evangelique was written by the French reformist court poet Clement Marot, and personally dedicated to Anne. During her reign, Anne's relatives dominated the embassies sent to Francis. She also maintained friendly relations with certain liberal Catholic French ambassadors in England such as Jean du Bellay and especially Jean de Dinteville who appears in Hans Holbein's 1533 painting |The Ambassadors'. In the controversy surrounding Henry's divorce and remarriage, all these diplomatic and cultural contacts were designed to demonstrate, at home and abroad, an English equality and association with France. This was asserted over and against the Holy Roman Empire, Italy and the papacy as part of the attempt by Anne's elite circle to create for Henry, apparent international endorsement of his status as a truly great monarch.

Francis and his courtiers probably did not share this particularly English vision of the alliance. They were, however, quite interested in the concomitant idea that, together, the two regimes could counter-balance and outmanoeuvre Charles V. Accordingly, Francis gave his full support to Henry's divorce case and their relations now reached a high point of cooperative friendliness.

In 1530, Francis allowed certain English scholars in Paris to consult the prestigious Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris on the question of the validity of Henry's first marriage. He then pressured the Faculty into agreeing that the marriage had been illegal. French ambassadors in Rome also worked closely with their English counterparts. The support Francis offered Henry on the narrow questions of the divorce case spurred him on to make increasing claims of secular and spiritual authority independent of the papacy. Henry then allowed himself to believe, incorrectly, that Francis approved of these claims.

The two rulers met for the second time, at Boulogne and Calais, between October 21st and 29th, 1532. As at the Field of the Cloth of Gold twelve years earlier, royal magnificence was paramount. The lavish entertainments each king provided were supplemented by further exchanges of gifts of plate, jewellery and clothes. The dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk became members of the Order of St Michel and Francis' leading advisers, Anne de Montmorency and Philippe Chabot, were admitted to the Garter.

Henry's son, the duke of Richmond, and his friend, Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey, spent the following year travelling with the French court. They visited Fontainebleau, the classical iconography of which particularly impressed the young earl. Here Surrey would have had access to Francis' art collections and his library, replete with Italian authors. The visit stimulated the young poet's interest in, and later experimentation with, Italian forms of epic verse. These efforts led him, alongside Sir Thomas Wyatt, to compose the first sonnets in English. Surrey's experience is reminiscent of that of John Leland, a young English poet and antiquarian who visited France in the late 1520s and who knew Guillaume Bude, the king's librarian. His many Latin epigrams testify to the education he received in this verse form which was then favoured by Italian and French humanists. Several of these poems are dedicated to French scholars and express his hopes for continuing Anglo-French amity.

Meanwhile, underneath the smooth surface of political co-operation, dangerous cross-currents were developing. In 1533, Francis concluded a marriage alliance with Clement VII which he hoped would detach the pope from his allegiance to Charles V and thus help both him and Henry VIII. However, Henry wanted Francis to secure Clement's approval of the divorce before allowing Catherine de Medici to marry Francis' son, Henri. Nevertheless, in October 1533, the Valois-Medici marriage took place despite the fact that in July the pope had censured Henry's marriage to the now-pregnant Anne Boleyn. Henry angrily accused Francis of betraying him, an accusation just as angrily rejected by Francis who said that Henry had only his own impatience to blame.

After October 1533, Francis and his ministers, especially Montmorency, increasingly lost patience with Henry. Anne Boleyn fostered several unsuccessful attempts at a firm reconciliation based upon marriage alliances. However, after 1533, and especially after her fall in 1536, relations rapidly disintegrated into bickering about debts, religious differences, piracy and territorial infringements around Calais.

In 1536, Francis again went to war with the emperor over his claim to Milan. Montmorency fought Charles to a truce and then arranged a short-lived Franco-Imperial peace. Despite Montmorency's high hopes, Charles finally refused to hand Milan over to Francis and hostilities resumed in 1542. Against this background and despite the difficulties, Anglo-French contacts were maintained and Francis constantly sought Henry's financial and military support against Charles V.

During his mature years, due in no small measure to this on-going conflict, Francis I's kingship became progressively more monumental, indeed imperial, in style. The iconography of these years stressed the stability and permanence of the king's dynasty and his realm. Francis spent increasing amounts of time in Paris and at Fontainebleau where his steadily expanding artistic collections and library were shown to all important visitors.

During the 1540s, Henry VIII also insisted, more than ever, that his was an imperial kingship. In a move partly forced on him by his advancing age and increasing girth, Henry also became more or less permanently established in his capital. His vast collection of personal plate and tapestries, which probably equalled or exceeded Francis I's, was brought to his palaces of Whitehall, Hampton Court and Greenwich. Here too, came Henry's book and manuscript collections, greatly augmented by items taken from the dissolved monasteries. Much of this augmentation work was undertaken by the same John Leland who had witnessed Bude's work for Francis in the 1520s.

Henry spent the windfall from the sale of monastic lands on an expanded building and decoration programme centred in and around London. The French king's latest building projects, such as the decoration of the chateau of Chambord, were not the model for, but gave added impetus to, the work at Whitehall and the palace of Nonesuch. On occasions, Francis discussed Henry's building ideas with his ambassador, Sir John Wallop, to whom he also gave a guided tour of his private gallery and baths at Fontainebleau. He offered to send Henry marble and the moulds for busts of several Roman emperors which he was expecting from Italy.

During these years, Henry employed several French and Italian artists who had worked for Francis. Among them was Nicolas Bellin of Modena, who was familiar with Rosso's work at Fontainebleau, and who modelled much of the decorative stucco work at Whitehall and Nonesuch. In 1540, Nicolas Oursain made the astronomical clock which is still to be seen on the inner gatehouse at Hampton Court. Henry's personal Psalter, in which he is depicted as King David, his second great role-model after Henry V, was produced by Jean Mallard who had been Francis I's court poet in the 1530s.

In 1542 Francis proposed yet another anti-imperial alliance. Henry was not interested. Partly out of frustration over the interminable disputes and partly out of a desire to recapture lost youth, he instead allied himself, one last time, with Charles V. In July 1544, thirty-one years after his first invasion, Henry once again crossed the Channel to set about the conquest of France. He managed to capture Boulogne. The war and subsequent peace talks, dragged on for another two years until the last peace treaty of the two reigns was concluded in June 1546.

Francis I died on March 31st, 1547, barely two months after Henry VIII's death in January. At the heart of the French monarch's many. wars, his peace settlements, his administration and artistic patronage lay a very ancient ideal: that of the king as the warrior-leader whose greatness lay in military success and the distribution of largesse to his elite companions. Henry VIII's concept of his kingship was centred on the same ideal and his efforts to make his monarchy conform to it, partly through competition with France, pre-dated the start of Francis I's reign. However, Francis I's personality and greater resources put this competitive relationship into a wider, more sophisticated, framework than had previously existed.

This sophistication was particularly evident in Francis's artistic and intellectual patronage and it is here that his |Renaissance' influence on Henry VIII is most apparent. It was Henry's desire to match, or at least appear to match, Francis I's efforts across the whole range of kingly activities from warfare to art collection, that so drew England into an ultimately productive competition with France during his reign.

On May 6th, 1994, after opening the Channel Tunnel jointly with President Mitterand, the Queen observed that Britain and France, for all their ages-long rivalry, complement each other well, perhaps better than we realise'. This is an observation which Francis I and Henry VIII would have understood and, at times, even agreed with.


R. J. Knecht, Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of Francis I (Cambridge University Press, 1994); J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Eyre Methuen, 1968); D. R. Starkey, ed, Henry VIII A European Court in England (Collins and Brown, 1991); A. Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (Harmondsworth, 1957); P. Mellen, Jean Clouet (Phaidon Press, 1971); S. Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry and Early Tudor Policy (Oxford University Press, 1969).

Glen Richardson is a post graduate student at the London School of Economics.