King François I of France’s Sons are Held Hostage by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V

King François I of France by Jean Clouet
King François I of France by Jean Clouet

In the early sixteenth century, the balance of power in Western Europe was a delicate dance between France, the Holy Roman Empire and England. There were three strong personalities who each sought the advantage: King François I of France, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and King Henry VIII of England. Added into this mix was Italy which at the time was an unaffiliated confederation of city-states. Charles sought to dominate in Italy and François laid a claim to Milan through his ancestors. Both men spent many years of their reigns either planning to invade Italy or actually fighting in Italy.

In October of 1524, François crossed the Alps into Lombardy. The Imperial troops fell back to Lodi but François didn’t pursue them. Instead, he laid siege to Pavia. The garrison was manned by hardened German and Spanish troops and the city itself was surrounded by walls on three sides and the River Ticino on the fourth side. François’ advisors wanted him to withdraw to Milan but he refused and his troops were forced to spend a harsh winter in open terrain.

Only a small river separated the French army from the Imperial troops. On February 23, 1525, Imperial troops managed to enter the French camp under the cover of a thick morning mist. As they advanced toward the French, the king led a cavalry charge. In doing so he got in the way of his own guns and they had to stop discharging. The French came into contact with Spanish arquebusiers that were hidden in surrounding thickets. The French nobles sported plumed helmets and distinctive horse trappings which made them easy targets and snipers picked them off. François’ horse was killed under him and he was forced to fight on foot.

He wielded his sword at the enemy who were trying to snatch pieces of his armor off of him to claim a king’s ransom. François eventually surrendered to the viceroy of Naples. The battle raged on and the casualties were horrific. It was all over by noon on February 24 and turned out to be the greatest slaughter of French noblemen since Agincourt.

François was kept prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor, first in Pavia and later in Spain. François sought to be released with only paying a cash ransom. But the Emperor insisted on Burgundy and all the territories formerly belonging to his great-grandfather, Charles the Bold. François passed along all the Emperor’s demands to his mother Louise of Savoy who was acting as regent in his absence. Louise sent envoys to the Emperor with direct instructions to cede no French territory.

Louise of Savoy
Louise of Savoy

François became gravely ill in September. Louise sent François’ sister Marguerite of Navarre to nurse him and he did eventually recover. Marguerite also tried bargaining with Charles but he would hear none of it. Louise was forced to agree to give up Burgundy and the Treaty of Madrid was signed on January 14, 1526.

The terms of the treaty were onerous in the extreme. François was forced to agree to restore all the possessions of Charles the Bold to Charles, abandon his feudal claims to Artois and Flanders, marry the Emperor’s sister Eleanor, resign his rights to Milan, Genoa and Naples, provide a French naval fleet to accompany Charles to his Imperial coronation in Rome, return all the estates to his bitter enemy Charles, Duke of Bourbon and to join the Emperor on a crusade against the Ottoman Turks and the German Lutherans. As extra assurance of François’ promise, his two sons, the nine year old Dauphin François and seven year old Henri, duc d’Orléans were to be held hostage in Spain pending fulfillment of the terms of the treaty. Charles affixed the great seal with his own hand to the treaty and against his councilor’s advice, released François.

The two boys had been growing up in a loving environment with their mother, their aunt Marguerite and grandmother Louise. They left the security of their family to be transferred to Spain in the middle of the Bidassoa River under the walls of the town of Fuenterrabia on an anchored platform. All people had been cleared from the bay for ten miles on either side. There were one thousand troops on guard. It was seven o’clock in the morning on February 17, 1526 as a boat left the Spanish shore carrying the King and a boat left the French shore carrying the princes. They met at the platform. The princes watched as their father walked over to them. He only had a short moment to quickly embrace them and give them a blessing before he stepped into the boat they had just left. The boys were whisked into the boat their father had just left and were taken to Spain.

François immediately repudiated the Treaty of Madrid, infuriating Charles. Charles thought he could force compliance as long as he had possession of the King’s sons. A stalemate resulted. The boys were taken to a military type of confinement in Spain. At first things were tolerable but soon they were to be slowly deprived of even basic comforts. They were surrounded by soldiers and wardens whose main task was to see that they did not escape. Their confinement was shabby, cheerless and neglectful most likely due to Charles’ frustration at the lack of interest in their plight by their father.

Dauphin François, the third Duke of Brittany.  He would die before his father and his brother Henri inherited the throne of France.
Dauphin François, the third Duke of Brittany. He would die before his father and his brother Henri inherited the throne of France.

The conflict that ensued after the boys transfer was called the War of the League of Cognac and it lasted from 1526 to 1530. The principals in the conflict were Charles V against the League of Cognac, an alliance which included François, Pope Clement VII, the Republic of Venice, Henry VIII of England, the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Florence. The fighting included the Sack of Rome and the siege of Naples. François’ part in the war ended with defeat at the Battle of Landriano in June of 1529, ending any hope he had of regaining his power in Italy.

As the conflict raged, the princes’ grandmother Louise was working behind the scenes, doing everything in her power to secure their release. Through secret diplomatic channels she was communicating with her sister-in-law, Margaret of Austria who was acting as her nephew Charles V’s agent in the Netherlands. Louise and Margaret has grown up together under the tutelage of the French regent Anne de Beaujeu during the reign of King Charles VIII. The women knew each other well and greatly wanted peace. But Louise’s main concern was her grandsons.

After François’ defeat, he actively sought peace with Charles and negotiations were opened in Cambrai in July of 1529. Louise of Savoy represented France and Margaret of Austria represented the Emperor. The conference came to be known as the Paix des Dames or Ladies Peace. The final terms were similar to the Treaty of Madrid three years before. François surrendered his rights to Artois, Flanders and Tournai but he was not forced to give up Burgundy. Charles, Duc de Bourbon had been killed during the Sack of Rome so François was able to keep his possessions. He was to marry Charles’ sister and the ransom for the princes was set at one million two hundred thousand gold crowns. The signing of the treaty on August 5 removed France from the League of Cognac.

After the peace was settled, Louise asked Margaret for authorization to send a representative to Spain to visit the princes in Pedrazza where they were jailed in the hopes of finding they had been treated well. Her special envoy Bordin returned to convey the most heartrending report of their plight. The poor boys were holed up in one room which was dark and damp. The only window of the room had iron bars on the inside and the outside. The only furniture was two little stools for them to sit on and a hard pallet for a bed.

They had no education, no friends and nothing to occupy their time. Their only consolation was a small dog. Bordin asked Henri something in French and the boy asked his jailor to translate, demonstrating that the boys no longer knew how to speak French. When asked why, Henri replied all their French attendants had been dismissed so they had no one to speak to in French and were forced to learn Spanish to communicate with their jailors.

Henri, duc d’Orléans as a child.  He was the future King Henri II of France.
Henri, duc d’Orléans as a child. He was the future King Henri II of France.

Upon hearing this report, Louise wept. Margaret had assured her the Emperor was magnanimous and chivalrous and she was confident the boys were well taken care of. Louise now knew the truth and would double her efforts to raise the enormous ransom. She wrote to Margaret at Malines, revealing what her envoy had discovered and asked for more humane treatment of the boys. Margaret was appalled and wrote to Charles demanding for an end of their scandalous treatment, imploring him to think of his own children. Charles was moved by her plea and ordered the children’s attendants be restored although they remained in the same cell.

Louise ordered her faithful deputies to gather the ransom by appealing to the entire country. The bourgeois and the clergy were fairly compliant in their payments. The nobles were more reticent and only agreed to pay their quarter of their income on the stipulation that it not set a precedent nor interfere with their seigniorial rights.

At last the entire ransom was raised. On March 15, 1530, François made a solemn promise to marry the Emperor’s sister Eleanor in a special ceremony. It was time to go fetch the children but Louise was suffering from gout and unable to travel. She arranged for a group of noblewomen to accompany the two boys and their future stepmother from Spain. Among these women was Diane de Poitiers, the future mistress of the prince Henri. Finally, the King and an imposing array of French nobility made a stately and slow journey south to Bayonne where the exchange for the boys was to be made at Hendaye. They were met by the Grand Master of Castile with his own party of Spanish nobility. Both parties distrusted each other so negotiations ensued to come to agreement on the details of exchanging the money for the princes.

The Spanish wanted the crowns counted in their presence and then demanded the metal be assayed to insure the coins contained sufficient gold. Another forty thousand crowns had to be brought in to make up the entire sum needed. Finally, the gold left for Hendaye on thirty-two mules loaded to the hilt. A courier arrived on July 2 to say the boys had been freed and were on their way.

François ventured out to search for them. He found the children and his future wife at a small abbey near Villeneuve-de-Marsan. When the King saw the boys, he couldn’t resist kissing and embracing them, speechless with happiness. At the same abbey, the King and Eleanor were married just before dawn on July 4, 1530.

The boys were welcomed enthusiastically in Bayonne by huge crowds. All the villages they passed through on the way home came out to greet them on the roads with flowers and banners. The new queen made her entrée in Bordeaux. Louise warmly welcomed her new daughter in law. It had been a year since the conclusion of the Peace of Cambrai when the boys arrived at Amboise on July 7 to begin their recovery from the miserable years of captivity and to rapidly learn to speak French again.

Further reading: “The Great Regent: The Biography of Louise of Savoy” by Dorothy Moulton Mayer, “The Valois: Kings of France 1328-1589” by Robert Knecht, “Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France” by Kathleen Wellman, “Francis the First” by Francis Hackett