Extent of France at the accession of Francis the First.
When, on the first day of the year 1515, the young Count of Angoulême
succeeded to the throne left vacant by the death of his kinsman and
father-in-law, Louis the Twelfth, the country of which he became monarch
was already an extensive, flourishing, and well-consolidated kingdom.
The territorial development of France was, it is true, far from
complete. On the north, the whole province of Hainault belonged to the
Spanish Netherlands, whose boundary line was less than one hundred miles
distant from Paris. Alsace and Lorraine had not yet been wrested from
the German Empire. The "Duchy" of Burgundy, seized by Louis the Eleventh
immediately after the death of Charles the Bold, had, indeed, been
incorporated into the French realm; but the "Free County" of
Burgundy--la Franche Comté, as it was briefly designated--had been
imprudently suffered to fall into other hands, and Besançon was the
residence of a governor appointed by princes of the House of Hapsburg.
Lyons was a frontier town; for the little districts of Bresse and Bugey,
lying between the Saône and Rhône, belonged to the Dukes of Savoy.
Further to the south, two fragments of foreign territory were completely
enveloped by the domain of the French king.
The first was the sovereign principality of Orange, which,
after having been for over a century in the possession of the
noble House of Châlons, was shortly to pass into that of
Nassau, and to furnish the title of William the Silent, the
future deliverer of Holland. The other and larger one was the Comtât
Venaissin, a fief directly dependent upon the Pope. Of irregular shape,
and touching the Rhone both above and below Orange, the Comtât Venaissin nearly enclosed the diminutive principality in its folds. Its capital,
Avignon, having forfeited the distinction enjoyed in the fourteenth
century as the residence of the Roman Pontiffs, still boasted the
presence of a Legate of the Papal See, a poor compensation for the loss
of its past splendor. On the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the
Spanish dominions still extended north of the principal chain of the
Pyrenees, and included the former County of Roussillon.
But, although its area was somewhat smaller than that of the modern
republic, France in the sixteenth century had nearly attained the
general dimensions marked out for it by great natural boundaries. Four
hundred years had been engrossed in the pursuit of territorial
enlargement. At the close of the tenth century the Carlovingian dynasty,
essentially foreign in tastes and language, was supplanted by a dynasty
of native character and capable of gathering to its support all those
elements of strength which had been misunderstood or neglected by the
feeble descendants of Charlemagne. But it found the royal authority
reduced to insignificance and treated with open contempt. By permitting
those dignities which had once been conferred as a reward for
pre-eminent personal merit to become hereditary in certain families, the
crown had laid the foundation of the feudal system; while, by neglecting
to enforce its sovereign claims, it had enabled the great feudatories to
make themselves princes independent in reality, if not in name. So low
had the consideration of the throne fallen, that when Hugh Capet, Count
of Paris, in 987 assumed the title of king of France, basing his act
partly on an election by nobles, partly on force of arms, the
transaction elicited little opposition from the rival lords who might
have been expected to resent his usurpation.
Excessive subdivision in the tenth century.
France contained at this time six principal fiefs--four in the north and
two in the south--each nearly or fully as powerful as the hereditary
dominions of Hugh, while probably more than one excelled them in extent.
These limited dominions, on the resources of which the new dynasty was
wholly dependent in the struggle for supremacy, embraced the important
cities of Paris and Orleans, but barely stretched from the Somme to the
Loire, and were excluded from the ocean by the broad possessions of the
dukes of Normandy on both sides of the lower Seine. The great fiefs had
each in turn yielded to the same irresistible tendency to subdivision.
The great feudatory was himself the superior of the tenants of several
subordinate, yet considerable, fiefs. The possessors of these again
ranked above the viscounts of cities and the provincial barons. A long
series of gradations in dignity ended at the simple owners of castles,
with their subject peasants or serfs. In no country of Europe had the
feudal system borne a more abundant harvest of disintegration and
consequent loss of power.1
Decline of the feudal system.
The reduction of the insubordinate nobles on the patrimonial estates of
the crown was the first problem engaging the attention of the early
Capetian kings. When this had at length been solved, with the assistance
of the scanty forces lent by the cities--never amounting, it is said, to
more than five hundred men-at-arms2--Louis the Fat, a prince of
resplendent ability, early in the twelfth century addressed himself to
the task of making good the royal title to supremacy over the
neighboring provinces. Before death compelled him to forego the
prosecution of his ambitious designs, the influence of the monarchy had
been extended over eastern and central France--from Flanders, on the
north, to the volcanic mountains of Auvergne, on the south. Meanwhile
the oppressed subjects of the petty tyrants, whether within or around
his domains, had learned to look for redress to the sovereign
1 Mignet, Essai sur la formation territoriale et politique de
la France depuis la fin du onzième siècle jusqu'à la fin du quiinzième.
Notices et Mémoires Historiques, ii. 154.
2 Mignet, 157, 158.
lord who prided himself upon his ability and readiness to succor the
defenceless. His grandson, the more illustrious Philip Augustus (1180-
1223), by marriage, inheritance, and conquest added to previous acquisitions
several extensive provinces, of which Normandy, Maine, and Poitou had
been subject to English rule, while Vermandois and Yalois had enjoyed a
form of approximate independence under collateral branches of the
The conquests of Louis the Fat and of Philip Augustus were consolidated
by Louis the Ninth--Saint Louis, as succeeding generations were wont to
style him--an upright monarch, who scrupled to accept new territory
without remunerating the former owners, and even alienated the affection
of provinces which he might with apparent justice have retained, by
ceding them to the English, in the vain hope of cementing a lasting
peace between the rival states.1
France the foremost kingdom of Christendom.
The same pursuit of territorial aggrandizement under successive kings
extended the domain of the crown, in spite of disaster and temporary
losses, until in the sixteenth century France was second to no other
country in Europe for power and material resources. United under a
single head, and no longer disturbed by the insubordination of the
turbulent nobles, lately humbled by the craft of Louis the Eleventh,
this kingdom awakened the warm admiration of political judges so shrewd
as the diplomatic envoys of the Venetian Republic. "All these
provinces," exclaimed one of these agents, in a report made to the Doge
and Senate soon after his return, "are so well situated, so liberally
provided with river-courses, harbors, and mountain ranges, that it may
with safety be asserted that this realm is not only the most noble in
Christendom, rivalling in antiquity our own most illustrious
1 A manuscript chronicle of the time of Charles the Sixth,
quoted by Guizot, Histoire de la Civilisation en France, iv. 144, states
the interesting fact that the inhabitants of Périgord and the adjoining
districts, thus surrendered to Henry the Third of England, for centuries
bore so hearty a grudge against the French king, of whom the rest of
France was justly proud, and whose name the church had enrolled in the
calendar, that they never would consent to regard him as a saint or to
celebrate his feast day!
commonwealth, but excels all other states in natural advantages and
security."1 Another of the same distinguished school of statesmen,
taking a more deliberate survey of the country, gives utterance to the
universal estimate of his age, when averring that France is to be
regarded as the foremost kingdom of Christendom, whether viewed in
respect to its dignity and power, or the rank of the prince who governs
it.2 In proof of the first of these claims he alleges the fact that,
whereas England had once been, and Naples was at that moment dependent
upon the Church, and Bohemia and Poland sustained similar relations to
the Empire, France had always been a sovereign state. "It is also the
oldest of European kingdoms, and the first that was converted to
Christianity," remarks the same writer; adding, with a touch of
patriotic pride, the proviso, "if we except the Pope, who is the
universal head of religion, and the State of Venice, which, as it first
sprang into existence a Christian commonwealth, has always continued
France contrasted with England.
Other diplomatists took the same view of the power and resources of this
favored country. "The kingdom of France," said Chancellor Bacon, in a
speech against the policy of rendering open aid to Scotland, and thus
becoming involved in a war with the French, "is four times as large as
the realm of England, the men four times as many, and the revenue four
times as much, and it has better credit. France is full of expert
captains and old soldiers, and besides its own troops it may entertain
as many Almains as it is able to hire."4
1 "Le quali tutte provincie sono così bene poste," etc.
Relazione di Francia dell' Amb. Marino Cavalli, in Relations des
Ambassadeurs Vénitiens (Tommaseo, Paris), i. 220.
2 "Dico che il regno di Francia per universal consenso del
ondo fu riputato il primo regno di cristianità," etc. Commentario del
regno di Francia del clarissimo sig. Michel Suriano, Rel. des Amb. Vén.,
3 "Dopo il papa che è universal capo della religione, e la
signoria di Venezia, che, come è nata, s'è conservata sempre cristiana."
Suriano, ubi supra, i. 472.
4 This was in the early part of Queen Elizabeth's reign, Dec.
15, 1559, MSS. British Museum. I use the summary in the Calendar of
State Papers (Stevenson), p. 197, note.
Assimilation of language and manners.
Meantime France was fast becoming more homogeneous than it had ever been
since the fall of the Roman power. As often as the lines of the great
feudal families became extinct, or these families were induced or
compelled to renounce their pretensions, their fiefs were given in
appanage to younger branches of the royal house, or were more closely
united to the domains of the crown, and entrusted to governors of the
king's appointment.1 In either case the actual control of affairs was
placed in the hands of officers whose highest ambition was to reproduce
in the provincial capital the growing elegance of the great city on the
Seine where the royal court had fixed its ordinary abode. The provinces,
consequently, began to assimilate more and more to Paris, and this not
merely in manners, but in forms of speech and even in pronunciation. The
rude patois, since it grated upon the cultivated ear, was banished
from polite society, and, if not consigned to oblivion, was relegated to
the more ignorant and remoter districts. Learning held its seat in
Paris, and the scholars who returned to their homes after a sojourn in
its academic halls were careful to avoid creating doubts respecting the
thoroughness of their training by the use of any dialect but that spoken
in the neighborhood of the university. As the idiom of Paris asserted
its supremacy over the rest of France, a new tie was constituted,
binding together provinces diverse in origin and history.
The nobles flock to Paris.
The spirit of obedience pervading all classes of the population
contributed much to the national strength. The great nobles had lost
their excessive privileges. They no longer attempted, in the seclusion
of their ancestral estates, to rival the magnificence or defy the
authority of the king. They began to prefer the capital to the freer
retreat of their
1 Marino Cavalli stated, in 1546, that this systematic
policy of continually incorporating and never alienating had been
pursued for eighty years. So successful had it proved, that everything
had been absorbed by confiscation, succession, or purchase. There was,
perhaps, no longer a single prince in the kingdom with an income of
20,000 crowns; while even their scanty resources and straitened estates
the princes possessed simply as ordinary proprietors, from whose actions
an appeal was open to the king. Relazioni Venete (Albèri, Firenze),
serie 1, i. 234, 235.
castles. During the reign of Francis the First, and
still more during the reign of his immediate successors, costly palaces
for the accommodation of princely and ducal families were reared in the
neighborhood of the Louvre.1 It was currently reported that more than
one fortune had been squandered in the hazardous experiment of
maintaining a pomp befitting the courtier. Ultimately the poorer
grandees were driven to the adoption of the wise precaution of spending
only a quarter of the year in the enticing but dangerous vicinity of the throne.2
The cities, also, whose extensive privileges had constituted one of the
most striking features of the political system of mediæval Europe, had
been shorn of their exorbitant claims founded upon royal charters or
prescriptive usage. The kings of France, in particular, had favored the
growth of the municipalities, in order to secure their assistance in the
reduction of refractory vassals. Flourishing trading communities had
sprung up on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea and of the ocean, and
on the banks of the navigable rivers emptying into them. These
corporations had secured a degree of independence proportioned, for the
most part, to the weakness of their neighbors. The policy of the crown
had been, while generously conferring privileges of great importance
upon the cities lying within the royal domain, to make still more lavish
concessions in favor of the municipalities upon or contiguous to the
lands of the great feudatories.3
No sooner, however, did the humiliation of the landed nobility render it
superfluous to conciliate the good-will of the proud and opulent
citizens, than the readiest means were sought for reducing them to the
level of ordinary subjects. Paris especially, once almost a republic, had of
late learned submission and docility.4 By the change, however,the capital
1 Yet the old prejudice against city life had not fully died
out. So late as in 1527, Chassanée wrote: "Galliæ omnis una est nobilium
norma. Nam rura et prædia sua (dicam potius castra) incolentes urbes
fugiunt, in quibus habitare nobilem turpe ducitur. Qui in illis degunt,
ignobiles habentur a nobilibus." Catalogus Gloriæ Mundi, fol. 200.
2 Michel Suriano, Rel. des Amb. Vén., i. 488.
3 Mignet, ubi supra, ii. 160, etc.
4 Rel. dell' Amb. Marino Cavalli (1546), ubi supra, i.229.
had lost neither wealth nor inhabitants, being described as very rich and
populous, covering a vast area, and wholly given up to trade.1 In the
absence of an accurate census, the number of its inhabitants was variously
stated at from 300,000 souls to nearly thrice as many; but all accounts
agreed in placing Paris among the foremost cities of the civilized world.2
With the military resources at his command, the king had the means of
rendering himself formidable abroad and secure at home. The French
cavalry, consisting of gentlemen whose duty and honorable distinction it
was to follow the monarch in every expedition, still sustained the
reputation for the impetuous ardor and the irresistible weight of its
charges which it had won during the Middle Ages. If it had encountered
unexpected rebuffs on the fields of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt, the
chivalry of France had been too successful in other engagements to lose
courage and enthusiasm. The nobles, both old and young, were still ready
at any time to flock to their prince's standard when unfurled for an
incursion into Naples or the Milanese. Never had they displayed more
alacrity or self-sacrificing devotion than when young Francis the First
set out upon his campaigns in Italy.3 The
1 It would seem that the Venetian ambassadors were never
free from apprehension lest their admiration of what they had seen
abroad might be construed as disparagement of their own island city.
Hence, Marino Giustiniano (A. D. 1535), after making the statement which
we have given in the text, is careful to add: "Pur non arriva di
richezza ad una gran gionta quanto Venezia; nè anco ha maggior popolo,
per mio giudizio, di che loro si gloriano." Rel. Venete (Albèri,
Firenze), serie 1, i. 148.
2 The lowest estimate, which is that of Guicciardini (Belgiæ
Descriptio, apud Prescott, Philip II., i. 367), is probably nearest the
mark; the highest, 800,000, is that of Davila, Storia delle Guerre
Civili, 1. iii. (Eng. trans., p. 79). Marino Cavalli, in 1546, says
500,000; Michel Suriano, in 1561, between 400,000 and 500,000. M.
Dulaure is even more parsimonious than Guicciardini, for he will allow
Paris, in the sixteenth century, not more than 200,000 to 210,000 souls!
Histoire de Paris, iv. 384. Some of the exaggerated estimates may be
errors of transcription. At least Ranke asserts that this is the case
with the 500,000 of Fran. Giustiniani in 1537, where the original
manuscript gives only 300,000. Französische Geschichte, v. (Abschn. 1),76.
3 See, for example, the MS. receipt, from which it appears
that, in 1516, Sieur Imbert de Baternay pledged his entire service of
plate to help defray the expenses of the war. Capefigue, François
Premier et la Renaissance, i. 141.
French infantry was less trustworthy. The troops raised in Normandy,
Brittany, and Languedoc were reported to be but poorly trained to military exercises; but the foot-soldiers supplied by some of the frontier provinces
were sturdy and efficient, and the gallant conduct of the Gascons at the
disastrous battle of St. Quentin was the subject of universal admiration.1
Foreign mercenary troops.
What France lacked in cavalry was customarily supplied by the Reiters,
whose services were easily purchased in Germany. The same country stood
ready to furnish an abundance of Lansquenets (Lanzknechten), or pikemen,
who, together with the Swiss, in a great measure replaced the native
infantry. A Venetian envoy reported, in 1535, that the French king
could, in six weeks at longest, set on foot a force of forty-eight
thousand men, of whom twenty-one thousand, or nearly one-half, would be
foreign mercenaries. His navy, besides his great ship of sixty guns
lying in the harbor of Havre, numbered thirty galleys, and a few other
vessels of no great importance.2
The rights of the people overlooked.
The States General an object of suspicion.
The power gained by the crown through the consolidation of the monarchy
had been acquired at the expense of the popular liberties. In the
prolonged struggle between the king, as lord paramount, and his
insubordinate vassals, the rights of inferior subjects had received
little consideration. From the strife the former issued triumphant, with
an asserted claim to unlimited power. The voice of the masses was but
feebly heard in the States General--a convocation of all three orders
called at irregular intervals. Upon the ordinary policy of government,
this, the only representative body, exercised no permanent control. If,
in its occasional sessions, the deputies of the Tiers État exhibited a
disposition to intermeddle in those political concerns which the crown
claimed as its exclusive prerogative, the king and his advisers found in
their audacity an additional motive for postponing as long as possible a
resort to an expedient so disagreeable
1 Marino Giustiniano (1535), Rel. Venete (Albèri), i, 185,
François de Rabutin, Guerres de Belgique (Ed. Panthéon), 697.
2 Marino Giustiniano, ubi supra.
as the assembling of the States General. Already had monarchs begun to
look with suspicion upon the growing intelligence of untitled subjects,
who might sooner or later come to demand a share in the public administration.
And rarely convoked.
It was, therefore, only when the succession to the throne was contested,
or when the perils attending the minority of the prince demanded the
popular sanction of the choice of a regent, or when the flames of civil
war seemed about to burst forth and involve the whole country in one
general conflagration, that the royal consent could be obtained for
convening the States General. During the first half of the sixteenth
century the States General were not once summoned, unless the
designation of States be accorded to one or two convocations partaking
rather of the character of "Assemblies of Notables," and intended merely
to assist in extricating the monarch from temporary embarrassment.1
The repeated wars of Louis the Twelfth, of Francis the First, and of
Henry the Second were waged without any reference of the questions of
their expediency and of the mode of conducting them to the tribunal of
popular opinion. Thousands of brave Frenchmen found bloody graves beyond
the Alps; Francis the First fell into the hands of his enemies, and
after a weary captivity with difficulty regained his freedom; a new
faith arose in France, threatening to subvert existing ecclesiastical
institutions; yet in the midst of all this bloodshed, confusion and perplexity
the people were left unconsulted.2 From the accession of Charles
1 M. A. Boullée (in his Histoire complète des
États-Généraux, i. 181, etc.) and other writers give the character of
States General to the gathering of princes, clergy, etc., at Tours, in
May, 1506. This was the assembly from which Louis XII. obtained the
welcome advice to break an engagement to give his daughter Claude,
heiress of Brittany, in marriage to Charles, the future emperor of
Germany, in order that he might be free to bestow her hand on Francis of
Angoulême. M. Boullée is also inclined to call the assembly after the
battle of St. Quentin, January 5, 1558, a meeting of the States General.
But Michel Suriano is correct in stating (Rel. des Amb. Vén., Tommaseo,
i. 512-514) that between Louis XI.'s time and 1560 the only States
General were those of 1483. Chancellor L'Hospital's words cited below
2 Some of Louis XI.'s successors imbibed his aversion for
these popular assemblies, and would, like Louis, have treated any one as
a rebel who dared to talk of calling them. Michel Suriano, Rel. des Amb.
Vén. (Tommaseo), i. 512-514.